I have just had the good fortune to spend nearly two weeks on Saltbreaker in French Polynesia, on-board 25 June to 7 July. In the struggle to come up with a post on my visit I found myself unable to focus on any particular corner of the adventure or arrive at a coherent narrative of the total trip. I now come to think of the entire experience as a series of small shiny moments, none so huge as to dominate, none so small as to be forgotten.
A Nine Hour Crossing:
Alex had plans to visit to San Francisco in June to be part of a close friends wedding. As soon as the schedule was settled, the idea of meeting Saltbreaker started to sound possible. There would be a definite window when ship and crew would be within reach of an international airport, this could work. My wife Kay, (did I tell you how generous she is?) fairly insisted that I try to work it out. Really. Just ask her.
Sunday 24 June I find myself at LAX trying to find the international terminal. It is my wife’s birthday (did I tell you how generous she is?) and I’m heading to Tahiti without her. I find the Tahitti Nui counter and they say “Ah, the other Kleeman”. Alex has checked us in already and parked us together in perhaps the best seats in coach, bulkhead exit row.
We just have time to hit Duty Free for our combined allotment of 4 liters of Jack Daniels, more on that later, and settle in to make a crossing in 9 hours that took Saltbreaker 9 months out of San Francisco.
It’s strange to think that an Airbus 330 has a hull speed about 100 x that of a Valiant 32.
What’s in a Name:
This gray fish is a Remora. They are those strange creatures that hook themselves to sharks to hitch a ride and maybe a free meal. They have this suction thing on the top of their head that makes them look like they’re built upside down. This one took a shine to the Saltbreaker dinghy and spent several days with us, including a 20-mile northward cruise in the Fakarava lagoon.
As you may recall, the crew has a tradition of naming animals after what they eat. This trip we met a dog, now named French Fry. Alex says that if he ever gets a dog of his own it will be named “Dog Food”. On telling this story at home, Kay suggests Purina or IAMS might be better names.
This Remora, amazingly enough, has been dubbed Toothpaste.
During my stay Alex and I were sleeping across from each other in what they call the settee berths, bench by day, bunk by night. Most mornings I found myself alert early, reading in my berth watching the crew come awake. Alex seems to go from dead asleep to sitting up with no transition, but then sits there for about 30 seconds looking like he’s trying to remember how to make his eyes work. Then he says good morning.
I found it tremendously amusing every time.
Cuckoo for Coconuts:
The machete went everywhere, don’t leave home without it. There was coconut water several times a day. A good-looking palm and the boys would go all Robinson Crusoe. The next thing you knew one was up top knocking them loose and the other was catching. This passion included locals who would gift you with a coco at every opportunity.
1 July is “Canada Day”, and being in the company of Dan and Sylvie of Ustupu this meant a celebration. Dan claimed that shaving your beard to leave a mustache with handlebars is required, everyone with a beard agreed. Sylvie fed us special treats starting with Poutine, essentially fries covered in gravy and cheese, followed by buckwheat crepes with the compulsory maple syrup. Finished off with something involving broth, potatoes, and dumplings, it has a name but it escapes me. Being Canada day, beer and Crown Royal were givens.
I said something about isn’t this “Dominion Day”? Blank stares from the Canadians. On further research it turns out that it was called Dominion Day until 1982, then changed. I’m not crazy, just old.
We rounded out the festivities with a bike ride to the end of the road (about 10k out of town), a visit to a pearl farm, more beer, more coconuts, soft serve ice cream, and more beer.
I could immigrate.
Cookout on the Beach:
Heading back to the southern pass of Fakarava we stopped for a cookout on the beach, in the company of Ustupu and some new friends aboard Mystic. I must quote part of a spot message from Nick, in case you don’t get them,
“Remember the guy who lives on coconuts and rainwater? We just spent a night with him grilling shrimp and veggies over a palm frond fire. His wife made coconut bread. Alex and I played some tunes and then he borrowed the uke and stole the show singing such hits as “Grandma Forgot The Matches” and “If You Don’t Smoke Cigarettes, Go Away”.
To that I can only add that we made our own utensils from palm fronds, skewers, chopsticks, and plates. The local couple was impressed. “Did you make these?” Thanks to Mystic for the photos, check their blog for a nice commentary.
The dinghy ride back to Saltbreaker under a really big moon was enough to make the trip all by itself.
See Ustupu at http://dansylvie.blogspot.com/
See Mystic at http://blog.mailasail.com/mystic/51
If Cash is King then Jack is the Emperor:
I spent the entire trip with a useless wad of US 20’s in my bag. As soon as I left Papeete the Yankee bucks were just so much paper. Even the local currency, the beautiful Pacific Franc (XPF), had limited use beyond the city.
Alex commented that he thought you could accomplish most anything in Polynesia with a bottle of Jack Daniels. They seemed to prove that when they managed to barter 1/3 of a liter of Jack for 5 gallons of gasoline, the guy did not want cash. In another exchange, a touch of the elixir conjured a lobster dinner.
As I can now appreciate, cash is of no use when there is no place to spend it.
Drift Diving the Pass:
The lagoon is about 15 miles x 30 miles with two passes to the ocean, one north and one south. The tide is about 12 inches, maybe 18 at full moon. Twice a day all of that water rushes in and out through the passes. When it’s running out you just avoid it, when it’s running in you take a dinghy to the ocean side and jump overboard, the ride back is spectacular.
Nick and Alex free dive an easy 10 meters but I’m just a bobber with a snorkel. The water is so clear, especially during the flood tide, that I rarely loose sight of the bottom. Even at that the fish in the shallow sections along the edges of the passage are thick. I feel like an extra in “Finding Nemo.”
Once out of the passage proper the current continues to pull you over shallower coral at a fabulous pace. Nick called this the “superman experience” and it really feels as if you are flying over the reef. The best part is, about the time things start to calm down you find yourself back in the anchorage a few yards from the boat. 80-degree water is nice but after nearly two hours submerged, a little sun and a cup of coffee really hits the spot.
Pizza Pizza Pizza:
Nick has mentioned Manihi more than once in the blog and in location updates. He has a spot near the southern passage to the Fakarava lagoon where he entertains some few paying guests, makes Pizza, and serves as patriarch to an extended family in residence.
He cooks and serves food in what he calls his garage, a roofed over boat slip with walls on two sides, picnic tables and a great wood fired oven. We commented that if Epcot center had a Polynesia pavilion it should look just like this.
For Alex and I, this is our second time at pizza night. Nick has spent four weeks in Fakarava at this point is on his fifth visit. He has nearly been adopted. Alex had prepared some bread dough hoping to borrow the oven and make a loaf or two to share but as it turns out the pizza feast is overbooked so the dough is donated and turns into maybe four additional pies.
Manihi takes a shine to me, no doubt thinking that if I had something to do with Alex and Nick that I must be OK. We have some father-to-father conversations and he keeps bringing me beers, most generous considering that the nearest brewery is some 400 km by boat. He tells me I should stay with him and I could help him build boats, I think, that for this evening at least, he really means it.
Taxi Please (2):
On my return to Papeete, I spent the night at a motel across the street from the airport in preparation for a morning flight back to the states.
The guy at the hotel desk graciously recommends a great place and arranges a ride for me, Taxi Sylvie!
An SUV arrives with two young girls in it, I assume one of them is Sylvie, there are plush stuffed Koala bears hugging the headrests, they chatter happily in French, I sit back and watch the world go by. At the restaurant I attempt to pay them and they won’t take the money. “Non Monsieur”. I can pay them after they pick me up and take me back to the hotel. I find this amazing; Papeette is not small, over 100,000 residents.
I finish my meal and the waiter calls Sylvie, they show up in minutes, I think they were waiting around the corner. This is hospitality.