Strange Visions of Outlandish Things

The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Naked houris – cannibal banquets – groves of cocoa-nut – coral reefs – tattooed chiefs – and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with breadfruit-trees – carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters – savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols – heathenish rites and human sacrifices.

-Herman Melville, Typee

The six Marquesas Islands jut abruptly up out of the sea at the far eastern edge of Polynesia, about 300 miles from the closest rock. Steep, rugged black cliffs clothed in lush green might make a forbidding sight to a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt cruising in aboard the (trés chic) SS Paul Gauguin, but for generations of sailors they have offered welcome shelter from the Pacific seas– for Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson in the 19th century, for Captain Cook and his crew in the 18th, for the first bedraggled Spaniards in the 16th, and, surely, for the hardy Polynesians who floated here in kitted-out canoes a thousand years ago.

Here in the 21st century, the landfall of Nepenthe on the isle of Hiva Oa was equally momentous for her crew, if not for mankind. Inherent danger and difficulty notwithstanding, a trans-Pacific sail is a rather common leisure activity these days– about 300 boats made the “puddle jump” this year, and in the Bay of Atuona, which we shared with perhaps a dozen other yachts, we were introduced to the peculiar subculture of ocean cruisers. While our trip has the proportions of, say, a protracted vacation, many of the couples, families and solo graybeards sharing our harbor have traded in the comforts of solid ground altogether, in favor of a life adrift. Not exactly the sailors of popular imagination in Nantucket red pants adorned with tiny anchors, these folk have more in common with the RV crowd: itinerant, independent, living in a mobile efficiency apartment. It’s a lifestyle I can scarcely imagine– so disconnected, so peripatetic– but for the friendly couples living aboard Nakia, Red, and the other boats we met, it seemed to suit them fine.

And why not? Upon checking in with the gendarmes in the Marquesas,foreigners are issued a visa, gratis, granting the freedom to cruise for 90 days through idyllic French Polynesia– the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the rest of the Society Islands. I will surely discuss the latter groups in future pontifications, but for now, I can attest that that these Marquesas are islands where precipitous volcanic peaks are whorled in misty clouds, where luscious ripe mangoes literally fall at your feet, and where a rainbow arcing over a calm blue bay is, no shit, a daily occurrence. There is not much snorkeling or diving to be done here– no reefs, cloudy water– rather, the islands are best enjoyed by foot: Henry and I have enjoyed hikes on trails winding up from coconut palm groves surrounding the bays, through thick stands of mango and breadfruit trees and up into heights of grassy scrub brush and unexpected pine forests.

If you had saved your cash, bought yourself a boat, and wanted nothing more than to check out from the pace of Western life, you could scarcely do better than to come cruise the Marquesas, where a leisurely pace of life is strictly enforced. We arrived in our first port of call in the early afternoon, and after 26 days asea, were eager to check in and begin enjoying everything that solid ground had to offer. Three PM, it turned out, was much too late in the day for such activity– the gendarmes prefer to take care of business between 10 and 11:30, enjoy their siesta until about 2 PM, and then not do any work for the rest of the afternoon. Most businesses seem to operate on a similar schedule– we have had to vigorously lobby restaurant proprietors to prepare food during hours their establishment is ostensibly open.

All in all, the economy here is a bit of a mystery to me. Without much tourism on either the budget- or high-end (the islands are just too dang far from anywhere else) and not a lot in the way of industry, most of these islands’ economy seems to center around small-time fishing and copra production: the middle step between a coconut and coconut oil. Despite all this, everything here is extravagantly expensive– a can of local lager is $6, a restaurant dinner cannot be had for less than $25. This is also a magnificently disconnected place: television broadcasts only arrived in the 1980s, internet access is scarce outside Taioha’e, the islands’ largest town (population 2,000), and while SIM cards are available for purchase, I have yet to see anyone talking on a cell phone. I, for one, have made my telephone calls from bayside phone booths, which is a rather amusing throwback novelty.

The local languor, however, belies a vibrant past. Two centuries ago, close to 100,000 people inhabited these few islands, and when Melville visited, every valley was full of life. After the usual combination of European violence and disease did its work, the population was reduced to less than 10,000, where it remains. The valleys of these islands feel like ghost towns, with seemingly ancient stone foundations on terraced hillsides, carved petroglyphs and imposing tikis (a.k.a. horrible idols) as testament to the civilization that thrived here not long ago. But the culture survives, and a few nights past we were treated to group of teenagers preparing for la fête des meres (a.k.a. mothers’ day) with energetic drumming and traditional dancing, while down by the shore of Taioha’e Bay, fisherman gutted and cleaned the day’s catch, wives waited to bring home dinner, and children ran about, torturing tiny baitfish lying helpless on the quay.

Aboard Nepenthe, we’re surely enjoying the Marquesas, while also enduring our just penance for such delights. Keeping a boat like this afloat is constant work– swapping lines, tinkering with the refrigeration, checking fittings for wear– meanwhile, we arrived just in time for the early beginning of this year’s rainy season. Having four crew aboard certainly made our crossing easier, but four is now rather a crowd in our little cabin, and the overall effect is one of four large, rather pungent, not entirely tidy men living in an efficiency apartment where absolutely everything is always wet. And hopping between these islands is no mean feat, either: the passage from Fatu Hiva to Nuku Hiva was a full 24 hours, during which we endured the gustiest gusts of our voyage so far, clocking up to 40 knots of wind in patchy rain.

Last week, after a jouncy sail, we arrived in Fatu Hiva shortly before sunset, and dropped our anchor in the rather crowded and rather gorgeous Bay of Virgins before succumbing to slumber. We awoke with a jolt in the dead of night to find that our anchor had dragged out of the sandy bottom and we had drifted halfway out to sea, coming to a stop courtesy of a boat belonging to a grouchy Frenchman. We scrambled to get clear of the other boats, while multiple grouchy Frenchmen on multiple boats blasted airhorns in our general direction. Real damage was gladly averted, but we rode out the night drifting at sea, and spent the next few days hiding out next door, where we had the anchorage to ourselves and the locals seemed happier to see us, anyway.

The past few days, we have been anchored in the friendlier confines of Anaho Bay and Hatiheu Bay on the north side of Nuku Hiva. Perhaps a dozen homes abut Anaho, with a tiny chapel and nary a road, paved or otherwise, besmirching the landscape. Blue water laps at white sand, fish of myriad colors course through the coral, and falling coconuts present mortal danger. Over the pass is Hatiheu, where higher civilization prevails, with a post office, a store, and a small clinic to boast of. Up the hill lie ruins and petroglyphs, and down by the shore is Chez Yvonne, the finest restaurant we’ve discovered here. In two days, we have dined there thrice, and to my knowledge we have been their only customers. A shame, as Yvonne served up magnificent roast pork in a sweet ginger glaze, rich and succulent goat in coconut-marrow sauce, and a very fine poisson cru, the local delicacy: a wahoo ceviche in coconut milk. So we are well-fed and properly nourished as we look forward to the beginning of our next passage tomorrow: 500 miles to the Tuamotus Archipelago.


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