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The Land of Men

By Shangri-La - Published June 15, 2008 - Viewed 3045 times

Kaoha from Fenua Enata. Hello from The Land of Men. That’s what the Marquesans call this group of spectacularly picturesque islands popping out of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the Americas and, for many, including the crew of Shangri La, the first sight of land after a very long passage.

The Marquesas islands are spectacularly beautiful, with their spires and green mountains

The Marquesas were named by Mendana, a 16th-century Portuguese explorer and the first European who happened upon the three southern islands of Hiva Oa, Tahuata, and Fatu Hiva. He renamed them individually as well, but The Marquesas is the only name that stuck as the islands were subsequently “discovered” and “claimed” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by Americans, the British, and finally the French, all carriers of the kinds of diseases that brought The Land of Men from an estimated population of 80,000 in 1893 down to 2,094 only 80 years later.

It wasn’t until a French doctor named Louis Rollin arrived in 1923 that the numbers began to recover. Currently, the population of the six inhabited islands is about 8,000 people. And, for nine days on Hiva Oa, Nicholas, Sam, and I inflated the ranks by three, while we read and reread the chapters of our sailing guide, discussed history and the behavior of our European forefathers, and tried to line up good anchorages that wouldn’t be adversely affected by honking easterlies and all-too-frequent and annoying southwesterly swells.

Nicholas is our fisherman – never tiring of putting out a line

Affected also by waters colder than they are further to the west, the Marquesas have no fringing reefs and lagoons. The coasts are jaggedly savage. Rocky, sharp, volcanic cliffs sheer away from thundering, crashing surf and blowholes with only few appropriately placed indentations to comfortably and safely shelter a boat from the Pacific. And, these are situated up at the heads of bays where rivers empty and murk up the bays. The boys were asking for snorkeling clarity, and I dog-eared the pages of the guide trying to create a suitable itinerary and promised to find them something... eventually.

We were sailing out of step from the traditional cruising schedule, and I preferred to be in a primary anchorage where we’d have access to a village, and have a chance to see some other sailboats as well. The South Pacific cyclone season extends from December through March, and most cruisers headed into the Pacific from the Americas time their westward migration to arrive in the Marquesas toward the end of March. So, even though the Marquesas are situated on the relatively risk-free eastern fringe of the danger zone, I knew the few boats sailing among the islands off-season wouldn’t be found in more remote, fresh water-less anchorages, the kind of places the boys needed, where there wouldn’t even be villages with villagers.

Nicholas and Sam setting up the dinghy

After the 32-day-long Pacific crossing, anchored behind the safety of a breakwater in Taahuku Bay, within easy hitch-hiking distance of the town with post office, internet access, fresh baguettes, and friendly, flower-bedecked people to chat with, I was in no particular hurry to go somewhere else right away. I love my boys very much, but once you’ve been confined on a 36-foot boat with two adolescents and the kind of sophomoric conversation they can generate for a month solid, you’ll be able to see how welcome nine days of other adults, new faces, evolved ideas, and vocabularies can be.

When we first pulled in, we anchored in front of a 36-foot aluminum sloop with a French couple cruising the Marquesas, and behind another boat with two American guys on a delivery leaving the next morning, but not before we had them aboard for dinner to talk about things that had nothing to do with potties, and ways to beat the evil computer mind, and the conquest of medieval empires. Then, a couple of days later, we invited the French people for a dinner during which we discovered they’d stopped in New York and visited with a good sailing friend of my family, the guy, in fact, whose chart I’d just used for the Pacific crossing .

I so wanted to stay and see the dance performance, among adults, but getting the boys somewhere where we could snorkel prevailed

Having lived aboard for 15 years already since leaving France, Catherine and Bruno were full of cruising tales of storms, knockdowns, and breaking anchor chains, And now, after spending the past three years working in Raiatea, they were headed toward New Zealand. The boys soaked up stories that weren’t Mom’s and eagerly accepted the loan of a beautiful picture book with all the natural hazards to watch out for in French Polynesia — centipedes, stonefish, puffer fish, ciguatera, and most dangerous of all, the one thing that takes out more people than anything else, the falling coconut.

Not only was Taahuku Bay murky, but it was also reputed to be a nursing ground for hammerhead sharks. The book didn’t list them as dangers, and we never saw any, not even the next day when all three of us dived in search of the lost dinghy oarlock holder, after the teak replacement piece Nicholas had spent the afternoon carving and drilling began to split as soon as it was put to task. The water was only about 11 feet deep, and yet you could hardly see the bottom, even after going down about nine feet, and through one last layer of suspended particles, at which point you were close enough to bump your nose against the silted floor, just in time to dash back up to the surface to gulp for air. Worrying about not seeing potential circling sharks makes you lose your breath faster than usual.


Here, I thought, was a good time to go up the mast to check all the fittings and rigging, and stall our departure

We paddled over to Bruno and Catherine to ask for the number for some local divers. I thought somebody with a tank might have a chance at locating the piece, but they didn’t think so. They said the silty bottom would’ve swallowed it up, so Bruno immediately set to helping Nicholas fortify his jury rigged attempt with an aluminum strip and some fiberglass resin to which I later added a hose clamp. It was a great way for Nicholas to hang out with the kind of sailor who loves to solve problems rather than avoid them, even when it’s somebody else’s problem, while I focused on finding a solution to the problem of where to go next.

Every morning, the crowing of wild roosters roaming the hillsides and the splashing noises of leopard sting rays and fish horsing around Shangri-La woke me, and then the boys would get up and ask when we could leave for better snorkeling grounds. I stalled, taking the boat apart, organizing and cleaning, getting hauled up the mast to check things out, servicing the engine, going over all the systems.


The anchorages of the Marquesas are exquisite settings

Didn’t they also want to see the decorations and dances the village would put on for the people on the Paul Gaugin, a cruise ship that was supposed to stop by for a day, an event that got our dinghy landing area all gussied up with floral arrangements, a mowing and a raking? So what, they grumbled, as the lei-ed passengers flocked into town and the dances were cancelled. Then, I made friends with another sailboat that pulled in just ahead of the cruise ship, a Canadian couple on their way back up to Vancouver after a two-year-long journey to Patagonia.

I hung out with Paul and Julie for a whole afternoon, talking about routes, engines, weather, families, and everything else, while Nicholas rowed the dinghy and Sam trolled and caught a small fish. That evening, our ninth and last night on Hiva Oa, the boys watched Miami Vice while I went ashore with the Canadians to meet some Marquesan friends they’d made, a group of three guys who spent every evening together power smoking and beer drinking, and talking about wild pig and goat hunts, the upcoming elections and the hottest topic du jour — whether or not the Marquesas would join the rest of French Polynesia (Tahiti, the Society Islands, the Gambier, and Australes) in moving toward independence from France, or not. On the walk back to the anchorage, Paul, Julie, and I agreed to meet up in two days in Hanameno, a bay on the northern coast of Hiva Oa.


We set out from Hiva Oa, with its luxuries, and aimed for Hapatoni

When we left our haven on Hiva Oa, with its daily supply of fresh baguettes, and my new friends (whose boat we autographed with a small ding while pulling up the anchor) to visit some more remote anchorages, between accounting for the prevailing and substantial easterly and northeasterly winds, and the forecasted westerly and southwesterly groundswell for the near future, our choice of destinations was pretty limited. On the next-door island of Tahuata, there are several pretty beaches and two villages facing west and southwest.

Although the one night we had in Hapatoni was serenely beautiful, under the sparkling firmament tucked in beneath a steep, coconut palm covered hill towering up from the rocky shoreline, the anchor chain ground against rocks, a not-so-subtle warning that as soon as the swell kicked up by some system thousands of miles away in the southern oceans rolled in, things would change radically. So, the next morning, after the boys finished a bit of school work and figured out that trolling a fishing line while snorkeling in the clear waters could catch them some small fish to use as lobster bait, sport that sounded like it could also lead to a great shark introduction, we left.


With boisterous winds, we reefed the main and our ride calmed

Headed for Hanameno, the wind in Bordelais Channel screeched as soon as we pulled out of Tahuata’s lee, throwing Shangri La over on her triple-reefed ear, then easing and letting her straighten up along Hiva Oa’s untamed and rocky, yet calm, lee shore. A gang of leaping and dancing dolphins escorted us around the northwest point exploding with surf and blowholes, and right into the teeth of a howler. Motoring against the wind and waves for a mile, paralleling the waves seething up against the jagged volcanic coast, was a dramatically dangerous looking sight, until we turned into a deep-ish Hanameno Bay that the cruising guide promised would be lovely.

As Shangri La came under the shadow of a tall and blunt promontory that very much resembled a Badlands butte, I saw the Canadian boat had waited for us, as they’d said they would, with three anchors holding them into the swell that was bending in around the headland and rolling ashore. Because we only have two anchors, we only put out two, before the boys went ashore, got nailed by mosquitoes, and fought to get back again through the surf to complain. Snorkeling here was out of the question.

We had a last dinner with Paul and Julie, a delicious lentil stew, followed by a terrible night of pitching and rolling and bearing-line watching before heaving anchors at first light, wishing my new friends a bon voyage, and setting sail for the spires of Ua Pou, 59 miles away in the Northern Marquesas. From what I could glean from the guide, Hakahau was the only other harbor within range of a day sail with a breakwater and the promise of shelter from the winds and waves. Plus, it had another village with baguettes and new people to meet. Just what I wanted. Apa’e Hiva Oa, kaoha Ua Pou. Goodbye Hiva Oa, for the second time in 21 years, and hello Ua Pou, for the first time. As for water clarity there, I couldn’t answer the kid’s queries. All I could reply was that if it wasn’t good, well, we’d find some... eventually.


Shangri-La peacefully at anchor




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