The following words are true. I promise. Thankfully we’ve got the photos to prove at least most of it or you would all think I’m one of the most sensational fictional writers of all time. But this is non-fiction. I’m entering my 9th straight year of sailing around the world. I’d thought I’d seen just about everything. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We’ve got a very full boat this time, in fact so full that I’ve abandoned my cabin for the crew cabin forward to make space for the guests. Rogier and the Scheurings (Thomas, Adriena, Clara) are on board for their second trip of the expedition, Bryan and Primoz for their first. To make this trip happen our group has collectively put in hundreds of hours into planning, more than any of our other itineraries tenfold. Our destinations, Penhryn and Manahiki, in the Northern Cooks get a handful of boat visits each year. Hands down, it will be the most remote and most challenging trip we’ve run.
Our tale starts in Raiatea, nothing new or out-of-the-ordinary yet. We meet at the fuel dock in town, topping off the tanks for the long run ahead while I take 9 passports (US, German, Danish, Dutch, Slovenian) to the Gendarme to check us out of French Polynesia after nearly 6 months of cruising her waters. I know 6 months must seem a long time, but we’ve barely touched the surface. Yes, we’ve sailed a couple thousand miles: from the Gambiers, through the Tuamotus, across the Societies (several times), and down through the Australs- 4 out of 5 of her archipelagos, but it would take years and years to discover all her hidden treasures. But thankfully, in less than 24 hours we would discover one of her most magnificent.
For the past couple months I’ve had my eye on Maupiti, the most westward island in French Polynesia, some 20 miles beyond Bora-Bora. It has one pass into the lagoon, and for the past two months we’ve had too much wind and too much swell to attempt the entrance, which is reputed as one of the most dangerous in the Pacific. The charter fleets don’t allow boats to go there, the locals haven’t permitted any resorts to be built. Most locals I’d asked had never been there, but the few who had would get this funny look on their face. One of those dreamy, hold on a moment, I’ll be right back with you just as soon as I can clear my head of this vision of perfection looks. I think I’ve let it slip in past logs that Bora-Bora, though stunning is way too developed for my taste. If you’ve got 20 grand to throw around then yes, it would be a lovely place for a 5 day Honeymoon in one of the dozens of over-the-water resorts. But here’s a little secret, and thankfully my giving this away will not affect Maupiti as the locals are going to keep it just as it is. Maupiti is more magnificent, more scenic, more incredible- IN EVERY WAY. It is hands-down one of the top 3 places I’ve seen by sail the world-over. It doesn’t have a single resort, and therefore no jet-skis, boats, traffic to garble it’s mesmerizing lagoon. You can’t ogle celebrities or diamond rings in Maupiti, and that suits me just fine.
The pass is indeed tight, but we arrived with nearly no wind and minimal swell which made for an anti-climactic entrance. By the next morning our winds would pipe up to 20 knots and stay there for the duration of the trip. The only time we wouldn’t be able to kite for the next 12 days was during the passage to Penhryn, 600 miles to our NNW. But back to Maupiti. Oh screw it, I can’t begin to articulate this place, so I’ll have to use photos in place of words. All of the shots in this log were taken with point-and-shoot cameras by the way. Imagine what Jody could have captured….Oh, she’s going to be sick she missed this one.
Two days was a pathetically short period of time in Maupiti and it was with great regret for every one of us to leave, but we had miles to cover and two islands to discover…The boys got one final early-morning kite session in before we set sail for Penhryn, then a large pod of dolphins escorted us out the pass. This has happened more than a few times when undertaking a passage and they always bring good luck. Ours would come in the form of wind and fish. Big fish.
We turned NW and the miles started flying by. Discovery is a thing of beauty with her sails in full, blue ocean screaming by her hulls in excess of 10 knots. This she did perfectly well for half a day, then one of the fishing lines started literally screaming. Before I could get her rounded up (ie slowed down) and Lars could begin the fight we’d lost 300 yards of line. There’s only one fish in the sea that can take line like that. We’ve never landed a black Marlin- would this be our chance?
Landing a fish at sea is always action-packed, but landing an 8 1/2′ Marlin is just flat stressful. It took Lars nearly an hour of hauling and sweating and cursing before we got a glimpse of the monster. I was putting our engines through hell trying to keep the line aft of the props, but not too far out so Lars could gain ground. We were heaving in uncomfortable seas, which made more than a few of our guests mildly green. In between runs I asked Lars how in the hell we were going to get this thing on board. We decided the best chance was for me to get in the water and shoot it with my large spear gun, which has a float line attached we could safely use to haul it on board. This turned out to be a nearly-fatal mistake. Within seconds of hitting the water I got the float line tangled around my body, then one of the rudders, then the line to the fish, which at twice my weight was a lot scarier in the water sitting right next to me than it had been from the stern of Discovery. Best case scenario at this point would be just not to drown. I’m in 15,000 feet of rough water, boat full of bewildered guests, Lars tied to a 300 pound bleeding fish, my lines wrapped around my body, two engines and props running; all being controlled by poor Rogier who’s never even driven the boat! I made a commitment right there and then- I was willing to drown to land this fish cause if we didn’t Lars would never speak to me again. Panting and choking on water, and nearing panic, I made one last dive to free the line and get my ass out of the water. Incredibly it worked and I found myself safely back on Discovery and the Marlin still on the line. Luck was on our side.
A great deal of commotion ensued, but Lars stuck to his guns and I managed to make a lucky plunge with the gaff and we had our fish. The two of us could barely haul it out of the water. Lars wasted no time expertly dissecting every morsel of the tasty flesh from our prize, a gift of great magnitude and an offering from the sea we all appreciated. We each ate a small piece directly from the fish, a ritual and sign of respect and thanks we adopted years ago. For three days we ate Marlin for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and our freezer remains packed full. We packed the fishing gear away and turned north again as the sun disappeared beyond our horizon and was replaced by a glorious waxing moon. A fine day.
We spotted Penhryn on the 3rd morning. Adriena and Clara wore their first smiles in as many days- their stomachs weren’t in love with being at sea, but they weren’t the only ones excited to arrive. Landfalls are one of my favorite things of being at sea. The anticipation, the unknown, the adventure in store. Who knows what this tiny piece of land in the middle of nowhere holds for us? The immediate task at hand was clearing with customs and immigration. Two very large fellows boarded Discovery with about a third of the town’s children in tow and the age-old tradition of barter and trade began. Amidst giving away fishing hooks, DVD’s, watches and sunglasses we learned that Penhryn is not exactly a boom town. It’s famous pearl industry of the 90’s has collapsed. It’s population, depending on who you ask has gone from 600 or 1000 to 200 or 250. They have either 20 kids in school or over 100. The last supply boat came sometime between 3 months ago and over a year. This is what I love about the Cooks, and something I distinctly remember from my last trip some 8 years ago- the people out here have little concern or even regard for time. There are no races being held in Penhryn for anything, except maybe the race to get the most stuff off of us that they can before the next group comes along.
Stripped of a few of our belongings we headed across the expansive turquoise lagoon to the windward side where we knew flat water and wind would be in plentiful supply. For the next 4 days our lives were spent doing mostly two things: kiting and eating. Lars and Hannah flaunted their considerable skills as always cooking up one gastronomic delight after another, while the boys rode and rode and rode. Twice we sailed downwind across the lagoon with the kiters on the horizon exploring miles of empty reef and shallow protected waters. Penhryn has never been kited and we were too happy to be the first.
We had a number of local visits during our visit. As we were the only boat there, and the only boat the locals had seen in weeks, we were a ripe target for trading. In general I can say the adults are big, the kids are dirty, and everyone coming from one of the two villages are covered in flies; but their smiles are large and their hearts warm. One grandmotherly lady has kept a log book of all the visiting yachts since 1986. Looking through it’s pages is looking into a memoir of the sea. Some of the boats I knew from wandering through the Pacific years ago and had long since forgotten.
Our final night in Penhryn is where this trip went from epic to unbelievable. We’d kited so much our hips were void of skin, we’d caught a 300 lb marlin, we’d done things no other human has. But the ocean had one last gift in store. We weren’t allowed to leave Penhryn on Sunday (it’s a very religous place, and movement is not allowed on Sunday) so we anchored outside the pass, neatly getting around the rule so we could depart for Manahiki at the right time. As the waters were deep and clearly full of coral I sent Lars in the water to try to find a spot for us to anchor without damaging anything. As soon as he hit the water he looked up at me and said “it’s the most beautiful coral I’ve ever seen.” Some readers will remember we spent some of this season in the Tuamotus- Lars knows what he’s talking about when it comes to beautiful coral. Unfortunately for us, the bottom, which shelved from 20 meters to thousands was an Eden of life and there was no way I was going to drop our anchor on it. We ushered everyone into the dinghy so they could have a look around, and Primoz and I headed back for the pass, where I hoped we could find a spot with a sandy bottom. Just before the pass, in dying light I noticed a distinctly clear patch and jumped over-board to have a quick look. This was the spot, an area just large enough to house our anchor and chain. We dropped her down, then I jumped over to make sure we were secure- a slip here would find us well at sea in the middle of the night.
My head hit the water and I nearly choked on my snorkel. Beneath me an aquarium of sea life in numbers I had no idea still existed in today’s depleted seas. Schools of tuna- SCHOOLS, wrasse and parrot fish by the dozens and dozens, a literal herd of bonito, black tip sharks, a lone massive sea turtle, thousands of smaller fish- angel, clown, rainbow runners… It was an orgy of life, on a scale that shattered any previous experience I’ve had. With the loss of the sun the imagination soars- there were as many predators as bait fish and I reluctantly got out of the water, counting down the minutes until day-break. The next morning we saw all of the above, along with three beautiful Manta Rays, which I haven’t witnessed under-water in 8 years. I lost my second spear in as many days in an overly-optimistic attempt to land a huge Dog-Tooth tuna that was way beyond my skill level, before leaving my hunting desires aside and just enjoying the remarkable beauty of what will forever be, at least to me: Never-Never land.
To check out a short movie from this trip CLICK HERE