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Marquesas Here We Come

Two kids keep things interesting for the several thousand miles at sea.
Two kids. School books for the next year. Two lockers full of puzzles and games. One cat. Thirty-five pounds of cat kibble. Numerous Christmas presents. Ten one-pint jars of home canned blackberry jam. Fifteen pounds of kiwi fruit. One case of ginger beer. Twenty back issues of New Yorker magazines. One and a half cases of red wine. Twelve pounds of chocolate. All this and so much more is stowed away that Imani's waterline is beginning to look at the fishes.

There's plenty to do and see on the hook in the Marquesas.
It is December 11, 1999, 4:45 a.m. Imani, a Roger Simpson-designed, 33-foot catamaran with her captain and builder Marc Gounard, kid crew six-year-old Tristan and 12-year-old Maya with the adult crew, Anne Toulemonde, and me, Doreen, the first mate, ghosts away from her homeport of Galilee Harbor in Sausalito, CA, and out the Golden Gate bound for the Marquesas. The smiles start as we head once again to the open sea. "Jumpin' off the cliff," is what I call it, because that's exactly what my stomach tells my brain we are doing.

Even after more than 13,000 miles sailing Imani roundtrip between California and Mexico three times over the last three years, I still feel apprehensive upon departure. Marc sets both our course and the sails as the wind comes up, and we pass the San Francisco shipping channel. The cat throws up for the first time as the boat undulates up and down over the cross-seas, then the rest of the crew succumbs to mal de mer.

While Marc and Anne take turns at the wheel, Maya cuddles in a sleeping bag with her cat, Sam, in the cockpit. Tristan and I hunker down in the forward cabin and doing our best to keep the seasickness away, we sleep! Exhilarated to be back at sea, Marc mans the wheel and whoops in the 18 to 20 knots of northwesterly wind while Imani heads southwest at a quick 7 to 11 knots.

We are heading directly for the Marquesas at a time of the year when most do not head to the South Pacific. During our cruising time in Mexico, we met French boats that had spent the South Pacific cyclone season in the Marquesas. They reported that December through March were some of the best months to be there, with few other boats and great weather. The Marquesas are located too close to the equator and too far east in the Pacific for cyclones to reach them. Also, with the completion of the Eastern Pacific's hurricane season in November, a December passage from California should amount to a steady and comfortable downwind run to the equator.

With all this info in hand, we find the conditions at sea to be exactly as we hoped. Imani feels like she is riding a rail. Autopilot on. Genoa and main sail set. We rack up 200, 180, and 160-mile days. By day three, all the crew is eating well and even able to cook a complicated meal. Maya begins a game of 5,000 rummy with Marc and we all (including the kids) take turns keeping watch during the day. The night watch is more structured. Marc takes the first watch from 2000 to 0000 hours. Anne comes on from 0000 to 0400 and I take the last shift, 0400 to 0800. We keep this schedule for the entire passage, as it allows our body clocks to get used to such regular hours and it gives our captain a full eight-hour-night's sleep.

The ill-fated spinnaker in action.
One day during week two, the wind lays down a bit. Marc runs up the asymmetrical spinnaker to maintain our speed of six and a half knots. Tristan spends the day playing Lego. Anne buzzes her hair off to a half-inch to celebrate the heat and to keep cool. That evening, smug and content, we open bottles of red wine and ginger beer and devour four large pizzas. But, when things are going this well on a sailing boat it seems that something just around the corner is waiting to boomerang your emotions. At 2200 hours, it happens. The spinnaker wraps around the forestay and tears during its descent. It is torn in two places and a sewing machine is needed to properly repair it. We don't have one, so we retire that sail for the rest of the trip.

We enter the doldrums on December 22—absolutely no wind. We fire up the Yamaha 9.9 and motor at four and a half knots for only seven hours until we find the wind again, hoist the headsail, and get Imani back on her rail. Under speckled blue skies and nicely rolling seas, Christmas and New Year's pass in a haze of celebration. Imani is making five to six knots.

The third week has everyone a little antsy. The kids are getting on each other's nerves and beginning to fight more often. Marc keeps Imani close-hauled on a steady course to Hiva Oa. On Christmas, the kids open presents and play contentedly for days after.

Crossing the equator on December 28, we get a windy 18 to 20 knots from the east as Imani continues to sprint to the finish line with all of us ready to see something different. On that same day, while biting into a hot buttery scone topped with blackberry jam, I fracture a part of my tooth. I spit two chunks of molar into my hand and contemplate could we—should we—superglue them back to the remaining tooth? Marc, a jeweler, determines that there is not enough good holding space available on the remaining molar to make a solid bond. Moreover, as is, I don't experience any pain, so I knock on wood and keep on eating.

New Year's Eve afternoon finds the grown-ups sipping champagne, toasting to all our loved ones around the world who are doing the same simultaneously.

Land ho! Hiva Oa comes into focus.
Imani rides her rail all the way into Atuona, on the island of Hiva Oa, the first land we've seen for 21 days. We arrive at 10 a.m. January 1, 2000, the first foreign vessel to enter the Marquesas in this New Year. Bonne Année, Bonne Santé. Time to feel the warm land under our feet.

As we approach from the northeast, I wake Captain Marc with one word, "Land!" He hops out of bed and runs outside to feast on his first sight of French Polynesia. He drinks it in—but what he sees is not what he imagined he would find. "Where is all the green of coconut palms and other tropical trees?" Maya sleepily rouses, just to state as only a cruising 12-year-old can, "Looks like an island in the Sea of Cortez to me. Been there. Done that."

Yet as we advance closer to the island, we see small trees and scrub growing out of the rock. Two hours later, as we pass on the east side of the island, major greenness begins to fill us up so, we dance on the deck in celebration. We see coconut palms and big old trees with large canopies. "Welcome to Atuona," booms Nathan of the sloop Bella Phylomena over the VHF radio. The Bella had arrived on New Year's Eve, the last foreign vessel to enter the Marquesas in 1999. During the passage, we kept a radio schedule with them, sharing weather information and positions.

The notoriously rolly anchorage at Atuona grants a reprieve.
Before we know it, we are hosting Hillary and Nathan aboard, and then setting fore and aft anchors. Atuona, a notoriously rolly anchorage according to all our cruising guides, is calm and serene today with only two other boats anchored here besides Imani and Bella Phylomena. In January and February, the wind is primarily ENE rather than the SE winds that are predominant during the trade-wind months. So at this time, Atuonas's southern facing anchorage proves to be a very good place to hang on the hook.

After a hearty lunch, we finally paddle the dinghy to land while Maya enjoys some on-board solitude. Marc, Anne, and I bring up the rear, admiring all the beautiful hibiscus and Tahiti Tiare flowers. Anne, who for 18 years lived in Tahiti and Huabine, points out wild basil, tamarind, and watercress. May our Marquesean banquet begin. As we walk along the road, we eat. We are eating so many good fruits that we find or are given—pamplemousse, starfruit, guava, papaya, lime, and more mango than we can possibly eat. For proteins—goat, pork, and fish have all been plentiful. The Marquesans are eager to trade their excess food for useful items like used dive gear and fishing lures. Prices in stores for staples such as flour, rice, butter, French baguettes, and chicken are reasonable due to government subsidies, yet more exotic items such as tomatoes can run $2.25 per pound. By adjusting our eating habits to consume what is most plentiful, we are living well within our budget.

The mention of money brings us to our check-in with the gendarmerie. As we enter, I am nervous, given that I am the only American on an American boat with four French nationals. In addition, all the cruising guides say that foreign vessels must be out of French Polynesia during the cyclone season. Yet, the gendarme welcomes us with a hearty handshake for the captain and kisses on the cheek for the women and children. Relief floods over me as he looks at all the passports and fills out our forms. I am the only one who must have a visa costing $30 for three months, and post refundable bond of $820. French nationals may stay without limitations. To stay for an additional three months, I must make an application six weeks before the expiration of my visa and pay another $30.

So with great relief, we settle in and make friends.

Doreen Gounard is offline  
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