The World ARC 2014 Blog, Society Islands, Suvarov, Tonga

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Leg 8 of WARC on Skyelark started midday on the 25 April in Tahiti with new conscripts, Gerard, Chris and David joining the more hardened souls of Erico (joined Marquesas) and Sarah (joined Panama). Mein hosts, skipper couple Dan and Em are joined by final conscript, Debbie (Dan's sister) who makes up the complement of eight to sail Leg 5 from Tahiti to Tonga over the next 37 days.

Boat working and safety briefings follow, a couple of Dan's welcoming sundowners, a getting to know you meal in Papeete, all soon heralds the morn of 26 April with an early departure to Mo'orea. Mo'orea, is a short 12 mile hop from Tahiti; for some it is the most beautiful island in the world, but French Polynesia clearly has many contenders for this title. Anchored in Opunohu Bay, we spent three days swimming and snorkelling in the turquoise blue water or hiring a car on an island tour to visit the viewpoints of Belvedere (with its jam sample temptresses) and Magical Mountain on the north coast and later in the day the wonderful full flowing waterfalls of Afareaitu. The jagged mountain ridges featuring Shark Tooth mountain are an awesome backdrop to Skyelark's anchorage.

David was mega chuffed to receive the good news of becoming a Grandad for the first time, with the safe arrival of Rosalie Elizabeth Fernandes, 7lb 2oz at 5.19am on 28 April - that is in Edinburgh not French Polynesia! Champagne to follow - 2 bottles of Moet & Chandon at £100 a bottle - this is not a cheap booze cruise!

On the 29 April Chris and David attempted to climb Mt Rotui height (899m) - A Tahitian Corbett, with steep slopes and a narrow ridge hike with dramatic exposures, both east and west. At 750m altitude incoming rain brought proceedings to a halt and wisdom over valour bade our aspiring mountaineers (one wearing lime green flat running shoes) a speedy return down some clay ski slopes to the Lillykoi cafe for lunch. The owner and cook last worked for the author of 'A Year in Provence': 'You are crazy people - people die on that mountain' as she served up some recently expired shrimps and rice.

Next stop Huahine, an overnight sail of 13 hours, which we spun out not to arrive too early as we had some strong winds which tested some of the novice crew but not the real salty dogs. On our first landing, Dan and Em frogmarched a few around a northern lake for a 10 mile hike, while those with a liking for fine food ate from Les Roulottes, some well stocked vans on the seafront - a lot lot better than it sounds!

May Day was celebrated with an around the Island cycle tour - with its proverbial ups and downs - one of which was an overly large lunch of fish, chips and salad with a custard cheese sauce, which some believed was more of a muase bouche! It did not match Chris's previous night's 'Come Dine with Me' piece de resistance of a spaghetti puttanesca with an Erico greek salad accompaniment.

Next stop is Raiatea... other cooking highlights (or lowlights) to follow.

- David

Skyelark Happy Band Song:
In the early 80s a musician by the name of Albert Hammond released a song called the Free Electric Band which celebrated a departure from the mainstream and pursuit of dreams. I took the liberty of adjusting the words of the song to reflect what we are doing on Skyelark.

We came down from Panama, Marquesas and Papeete
We came to sail on Skyelark and to join the World Arc fleet,
We left behind suburbia and our little patch of land
To sail to Bora Bora in the Skyelark happy band

Our happiness was paid for when we laid our money down
For mornings on the foredeck and a mooring near a town,
A good wifi connection and an Ipad in our hand
Then we'll sail to Bora Bora in the Skyelark happy band

Our families think were crazy even though they've never said
We sleep in narrow bunks and share a tiny little head,
Shower in cold water and wash underwear by hand
So we can sail to Bora Bora in the Skyelark happy band

Dan and Em would speculate upon their crews career
A lawyer and a doctor and a civil engineer,
And Deb's a food chain buyer so a gourmet menu's planned
As we sail to Bora Bora in the Skyelark happy band

If you haven't seen our breadcrumb trail this is roughly where we've been
We dropped in on Moorea, Raiatea and Huahine,
We've biked and climbed and walked and crawled till we can barely stand
Before we sail to Bora Bora in the Skyelark happy band

Then we'll seek the Southern Cross and lash the anchor fast
And leave this piece of heaven for the open seas at last,
If Captain Cook is looking down, I think he'd understand
He should have sailed to Bora Bora with the Skyelark happy band..

Over the last 10 days or so days the weather has been more Scottish than South Pacific. Fortunately we have crew member and Scotsman, David, to interpret. Just as Eskimos have 32 or so different words for snow, so Scotsmen have words for rain. The conditions were variously described as "dreich" or "smirren".

Leaving beautiful, quiet Huahine we had a lovely downwind sail of a few hours to Ra'iatea, anchoring off in quiet Faaroaa Bay. A highlight were the fresh Tuna Dan bought in Huahine for lunch. I had urgent need of a dentist to file off an ancient filling which was irritating my tongue and making eating and speaking painful. As all we do all day is eat and speak it was a handicap. I hitched a lift into town from two average size Polynesian ladies, Beryl Smith and her daughter Doris, Mormons, descendants of Charles Smith from London. Beryl very kindly, got me an appointment at the dentist and all was right with the world.

After a brief relocation to a Ra'iatea town centre mooring and a rainy day car tour of the island we motored the short hop within the reef to sister island Tara. Here we moored in Haamene (or "Hurricane") Bay to sit out a blow expected overnight. This was a typically good decision by Em and Dan as the rest of the fleet anchored further into the bay had several dragged anchors overnight. We were snug on our mooring, owned by a small hotel/bar called "Hibiscus", founded and run for 30 years by Frenchman, Leo Moreau and his Tahitian wife. Lonely Planet described the service as "erratic" which was true but this was utterly charming eccentricity and a great spot for sun downers and continental breakfast.

The weather cleared and we left lovely Tara with the rest of the fleet for a day sail to Bora Bora. We moored off a very slick bar restaurant called the "Bloody Mary" and went ashore for the eponymous drinks and dinner. It had one of those boards outside with the names of all the famous (sort of) people who have visited, like Bob de Niro. Very tasty dinner but they attempted to overcharge us (twice). Sarah immediately put a suitably salty revue on Trip Advisor so they are going to regret that.

We quickly understood that we were in fact the only non-honey-mooners visiting Bora Bora but that was fine as we just pretended we were on honey-moon, as best we could in the circumstances. So we took a guided walk in the jungle led by the only Moroccan Tahitian in French Polynesia, Adzim, cycled the island on bikes provided by Avis and hung out on the beautiful beaches and in the rather proper Yacht Clubs, where Commodore Gerard made us all feel at home. Me, Debbie and Sarah went diving with Manta Rays (amazing) and Lemon Sharks (big) and Em and Dan got in a bit of kite surfing. Other more ambitious plans by David to climb the mountain and take a heli tour were thwarted. Too slippery and no helicopter respectively.

Sadly our Brazilian/American crewmate, Erico, left the boat in Bora Bora after six weeks on Skyelark from the Marquesas. It was a pleasure and a privilege to sail with Erico and we wish him safe journey home via New Zealand.

On 13 May, having provisioned, watered and fuelled we sailed WNW for uninhabited Suvarov in the Northern Cook Islands. I write this exactly two days in to an estimated four and a half day sail. Wind steady 18-22 knots (subject to the odd squall). We were all enjoying the simple routines of a long sea passage when yesterday, within minutes of Dan having dismissed our fishing prospects because of the full moon, the line span out, the rod bent double and an enormous dark shape appeared in the water astern. We cut the line because, as they say in "Jaws" we would have needed a bigger boat to land that monster, a beautiful Blue Marlin which breached clear into the air on our port quarter and tore away!

We have all been reading "An Island to Oneself" by Tom Neale (thank you lovely Liz) who lived alone on Suvarov for several years in the 1950s and 60s so are looking forward to living the dream of the beachcomber life for three days, following which we shall be heading to Nuie, another three days sail.

- Chris

On Monday night we enjoyed a wonderful BBQ at the new Bora Bora yacht club and discussed with fellow crews the plans for our first ocean passage of this leg. We left behind the unseasonal rain, westerly winds and showers for settled easterly trade winds straight out of the Pacific Crossing Pilot books. Blue sky, gentle clouds and the long lazy swell of the Pacific. A steady F5 from astern saw us averaging 7 knots under main and boomed out headsail the entire way. The apparent wind at 150 degrees lasted the 4 days and an hour of our voyage. By night, a full moon and stars -- we have now all steered a course by the Southern Cross. The cooler night time breeze sees us sailing the silvery path of the moon on the waves ahead.

To be fair, we had a few squalls but mainly of rain and the wind only briefly touching 35knots. 700nmiles under our keel and the first sighting of a palm tree rising from the horizon -- surely this must be One Tree Island of the Suvarov atoll. Gone are the majestic mountains of French Polynesia. Here in the northern Cook Islands we find low lying islands or Motos. Nothing here for our Everest climbing crew member David. The highest point of the island is just 15feet above sea level.

No longer buoys, here just a reef surrounding the lagoon and but a single entrance. A measured approach, aided by GPS but more reliant on the man in the bows calling the course changes to lead us through the narrow channels between the reefs, the colour changes in the water being beyond this correspondents ability to describe. This atoll measures about 10 miles by five. The main island maybe just a mile or so. This is in the middle of the Pacific, and entirely uninhabited. However, in the 1950s the New Zealander Tom Neale spent about 6 years in two spells as a voluntary castaway. We await our first trip ashore to see his dwelling -- but first we have to brave the half dozen or so sharks circling our ship.

This atoll is visited by but a mere handful of round the world sailors each year, and a warden from New Zealand for a couple of months a year. What an honour to follow in the footsteps of Capts Cook, Bligh, Bourganville and of course Moitessier. Breadfruit, coconuts, fresh raw tuna, and now an entire atoll to ourselves. We shall sleep soundly, on deck and listening to the distant roar of the waves breaking on the reef that surrounds our tiny anchorage. Around us, the anchor lights of our fellow World ARC yachts coming on as the sun sets low in the west, giving an unforgettable backlight to a few distant coconut trees. Far too beautiful to capture on camera, but we will try so we can later share with you all our wonderful experiences.

- Gerard


Life is very hard, on and around the island atoll of Suvarov in the Northern Cook Islands, with its pristine verdant Motus and warm, well stocked waters of multi shades of blues and greens encircled by the 35 mile long coral reef... shallow snorkelling waters within the lagoon, in contrast to the 1000s feet of vertical shelf outside the reef, where 5 foot high breakers mark paradise's boundary from the wide dark seas of seaming nothingness. Skipper Dan broke the heartbreaking news this morning that we would have to stay here yet a further day, as the winds needed to blow us south west to Nuie, our next port of call in the Southern Cook Islands, have yet to materialise and would require a potential motoring distance of at least 300 nmiles. This is in addition to yesterday's World ARC's gut wrenching announcement of a day's delay to our departure due to a lack of moorings in Nuie harbour! Hence our decision to stay, bite our collective proverbial bottom lips and think positive thoughts over our rotten luck, as we were made to slum it for another two days in one of the most remote and awesomely beautiful places on the planet... as Gerard surmised 'a little piece of heaven, 500 miles from anyone else in the world', except of course from the other fifteen to twenty WARC yachts and crews sharing the anchorage off Anchorage Island! 'It is so lovely here' says Chris, 'I've almost stopped thinking about pimping my Landrover Defender'. The rest of us refrained from going quite that far!

But for sheer beauty and remoteness the uninhabited islands of Suvarov, must surely take some beating... this morning we swam with manta rays, gliding elegantly across the coral floor below us as they fed on the reef, trailing smaller fish in their wake, feeding on scraps within the safe haven of their hosts' shadows... or our stroll two days ago, across the mile long coral reef between Whale Island and Anchorage Island exposed only at low tide providing an Axminster like carpet of fossilised and live coral, the colour of every rainbow shade imaginable... or the unexpected birdlife on Whale Island of nesting red boobies with teenage size chicks now bigger than their twiggy nests or Arctic terns terrorising any nearby walkers straying towards their nesting grounds in the scrub... or just pondering your naval navel on board Skyelark being circled by bright yellow, black finned sharks, which have no problem making room for you in their waters as you swim out to the nearby coral reefs teeming with fish of every hue possible.

But our main thoughts are of Tom Neale (already referenced by others on the blog), whose autobiographical book 'An Island to Oneself', now read by all on board through the encouragement and gift of Chris, which gave Suvarov its full context before we arrived. Tom Neale, lived alone for 6 years on Suvarov for two periods of 2 years in the 1950s and 4 years in the 1960s, with only very occasional visitors over that period, building his own shelter and living on a very rudimentary diet on the daily (yet pleasurable) grind of feeding and taking care of himself... ill health and onset of old age in the end forcing him towards some source of regular medical care. But Tom and his seemingly idyllic Robinson Crusoe island has left his mark on all on board as we eagerly found traces of his shelter, garden, breadfoot tree, crushed coral paths and storm damaged pier... but no-one showed willing to jump ship to live out a similar dream by staying on Suvarov for one full year and be picked up by the World ARC as it passes through here in May 2015...

The mad Scotsman however decided late on our second evening here to give it a go... leaving the safe haven of his shelf bed in Skyelark's saloon to sleep in Tom's ruined beachside hovel... with the aim of being the only one to stay on Anchorage Island for the night and get a real taste of the castaway lifestyle. This ambition was somewhat thwarted by the arrival of the WRAC young set setting up an all night party 100 yards further up the beach... with their bonfire and semi-rhythmic playing and singing to a non syncopated Caribbean beat! Sleep was hard to come by... at one point David awoke to witness a scene of dancing nudes around the bonfire... a cross between the coven of witches in Alloway kirkyard from Tom o' Shanter and the warring boy factions from Golding's Lord of the Flies... enough to make the limited hair on David's head stand on end and poor Tom surely turn in his grave! But sleep eventually came at 1.30am with occasional pierce calling of the frigate birds and the unforgiving mattress of hard floor boards cleared earlier of hermit crabs causing fleeting moments of wakefulness before eventual sunrise met all expectations of silence with nothing but the quiet lapping of the waves close by and the more distant roar of the white horses on the far side of the island as they broke over the coral reef.

Suvarov is surely everyone's imagined setting for Desert Island Discs - but no need for the distraction of the bible or works of Shakespeare here... all that is needed is a healthy selection of B&Q products, a never ending supply from an unmanned Tesco Express store and a Kindle! Favourite record must surely be the Springfield's early '60s classic of 'Island of Dreams'... nothing else could come close!

- David

Our second ocean passage, 540nm from Suwarrow to Nuie, proved a little more challenging than the previous journey. We set off well enough, with a following trade wind and all plain sail. Sadly the wind died and we had to call upon the engine - for those interested in such things, a rather solid and utterly reliable Perkins 4236 with a delightfully reassuring low revolutions grumbling noise.

True to forecast, GRIB files by satellite email download, the wind filled in and indeed rose steadily to a good F6 - but less enjoyably, from forward of the beam. None of us had signed on for upwind sailing, but it made a change to be heeled instead of rolling, and we cracked along at 7.5 knots or more, under 2 or 3 reefs in the main and reduced head sail.

Later, as the wind eased, fishing was successful with a king fish, like a large mackeral. Then just as were preparing to hand sail off Nuie, a handsome Tuna. Nuie is completely different. No reef, just ocean up to the cliffs ~ no sandly beach here, just 60 foot cliffs. The island is described as "an uplifted coral formation". In fact on 3 levels, from primievel earth heaves. Sea level, the first level at 60 feet then a plateau at another 60 feet up...that now forming the Tsunami evacuation level.

We moored to laid buoys, in 50m of water. Ashore, the dinghy comes alongside a stone wall and the crew clamber up steps or a ladder as the ocean swell allows. We then drew lots to operate the large electric crane to hoist the dinghy to the top of the quay. It's a boy thing.

The island tour, by the commodore and his wife of the yacht club, no yachts as there is nowhere to sail other than ocean, saw us marvelling at caves, pools, forest tracks, and well kept roadside family graves. Sadly many derelict 1960s prefab buildings, evacuated after a recent cyclone or once the younger generation could leave in the 1970s for New Zealand.

The, large, locals snack on fried yaro root spread with fried tinned corned beef. We instead spent a happy lunch hour at the WashAway bar, which is self service and pay in an honesty box basis at the end of ones stay, eating somewhat more healthily.

Yesterday saw us caught ashore in torrential rain, and one of the fleet breaking her moorings as a serious swell and strong winds unexpectedly arrived. Safely rescued, but with only minutes to spare, by an armada of tenders with outboards whilst her crew were tracked down to a local resturant. They had no choice but to put to sea, in deteriorating conditions...this is not Solent sailing, or for the faint hearted. The rest of the fleet, once they could get back to their yachts, tended lines and spent a fairly uncomfortable evening waiting for the weather to ease.

Sadly the welcoming arrival dance was cancelled. Apparently last year it was performed by the south village, and this year the thought was the north village might become involved. Unfortunately, a member of the dance troop seemingly liased direct with an opposite number, unwisely omitting to write as tradition requires to the head of the village. Required to assert his authority, he apparently had no choice but to ban the display. We learned from our guide that hierarchy and custom, with elaborate and overly formal inter village communications still play a central part in the lives of the 1200 locals.

The compensating excitement of the day was the arrival of the 6 weekly inter island trading schooner, nowadays a small container ship, and the offloading of stores into a barge for ferrying ashore. The ship lays a bow anchor offshore and has long stern lines to the quay. All very weather dependent, and indeed in view of the weather we cleared customs early, so as to be able to depart should the mooring become untenable. Our next destination is the VaVaU group of nothern Tonga.

- Gerard

It's been a few years since I've lost a whole day of my life - university perhaps - but at 16:00 Wednesday afternoon 16:01 , ships time, just as the afternoon scones were coming out of the oven - in less than a bite it became Thursday and 16:01.. Out here on the ocean, we know every minute, every watch change, our menu is planned out, its Debbie's turn in the galley!... What happened to Wednesday's dinner!? seriously, it's difficult to get our head round, but Em says it's true and we must accept it.

The explanation being the International date line, not only are we in Autumn as you're Spring (I'm told, though it is sunny) -- We have gone from being 12 hours behind England, to 12 hours ahead. The sun now warms our backs before it reaches yours. We are ahead!

So we are at sea, on what is our last passage of this leg heading to Vavau, in the northern group of the Kingdom of Tonga. Thankfully after leaving a very rolly anchorage and braving a splashy night beating upwind through a cold front under leaden skies, we are back to the brochure -- 20 knots of trade breeze, broad reaching, sun shining, cup of tea in hand and philosophising on world topics in general. If all goes to plan we shall arrive at dawn tomorrow, whatever day that is.



World ARC 2014 Blogs: Marquesa, Tuamotus, Society Islands | Society Islands, Suvarov, Tonga | Tonga to Fiji | Vanuata