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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in the Marquesas Islands


Our passage from the Galapagos islands to the Marquesas islands, across 3000 miles of the Pacific Ocean, took 25 days.  We bowled along with the wind behind us, and a favourable current adding many miles to the daily run which was sometimes 140 miles in 24 hours, pretty good for slow old Tokomaru.  There wasn’t much to see except for birds by day and stars by night.  Thousands of miles from land, there are always birds.  Two little storm petrels came regularly to flutter in our wake.  Shearwaters are very companiable, low-flying alongside the boat, skimming the waves; and occasionally a tropic bird joined us, hovering high above the boat, snowy white against the blue, its long tail feathers streaming.  On clear nights we sped west with the southern cross on our right, the plough on our left and a million stars in between, with the great constellation of Scorpio spread across the south western sky, its tail curled in the milky way.   


During the third week we encountered confused lumpy seas and changeable winds which kept us busy.  Then in a rain squall we were caught out with too much sail up and our steering cable broke, again!  (This happened in mid-Atlantic and had been repaired in Trinidad.)   So we lost half a day while Nick fashioned another of his ingenious mid-ocean repairs.  We were in radio contact with a few other boats, and were mortified to think that friends who left the Galapagos days later than us (in bigger, faster boats!) may actually overtake and reach the Marquesas first.  But we made it to the island of Hiva Oa before them, our landfall bathed in the pink tinges of a particularly beautiful dawn on Friday, 4 July, Nick’s birthday.      



And a spectacular landfall it was.  The Marquesas islands (part of French Polynesia) are magnificent. High volcanic peaks disappear into rain clouds, craggy ridges mark the skyline, steep ravines plunge to sea level, rivers flow through lush green valleys into beautiful bays .  We walked up a valley on Hiva Oa to see some petroglyphs and ruins dating from times when the Polynesian population was 10 times greater than it is now and cannibalism was practised.  Our path took us through dense forest with tall coconut palms, huge mango trees and wild hibiscus.  The ruins are overgrown and mysterious.  Having read first hand accounts in Melville’s ‘Typee’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘In the South Seas’ on the way here, we had some idea of what the earlier society was like.  On the island of Nuku Hiva, a walk up the river took us to the site of a ‘marae’, or ceremonial platform, complete with ‘tikis’, figures carved in stone.  This site has been carefully preserved and the location, high up the valley is a vast amphitheatre full of towering trees and plants with the usual breathtaking backdrop of steep mountains on three sides, the fourth open to the sea.


On the island of Oa Pou we anchored in a bay off the village of Hakahetau, - another lush valley framed by volcanic pinnacles like cathedral  spires. The people of this small community were very welcoming and provided us with mangoes, breadfruit, huge grapefruits.  And we were lucky enough to coincide with their dance festival, on Saturday night under the full moon.   It started with the youngsters who came dancing out from under the trees - girls and boys both looking lovely in red sarongs, the girls garlanded in flowers.  Gentle movements of hips and hands, rhythmic drumming, heartfelt singing;  we have never seen anything so charming.  Then the ‘mamas’ came sashaying into the clearing, splendid in red and white, dancing with similar delicate movements, but with wonderful poise and humour.  Three men played ukuleles, one small boy beat a drum and everyone sang.  Finally it was the turn of the men to perform the ‘haka’, dressed only in leaves.  (We had watched them plaiting these garments in the afternoon).  This was more like mime than dance, with warlike poses and fearful leaping.  The ukuleles and the singing ceased and the atmosphere changed with the beat of bigger, louder drums filling the valley.   Meanwhile children played around, and the soft night air was fragrant with frangipani and freshly cut leaves.  Together with our friends Heather and Dennis of ‘Duende’, we were the only outsiders and we envied the powerful sense of ‘belonging’.   Living on a boat and always moving on can feel rootless at times.  We rowed back across the bay in the moonlight leaving the villagers to continue their party in more universal style with a disco!   The community was in happy holiday mood.  It seems all the young people who are away studying in Papeete on Tahiti come home in July and it’s one big festival.  Next morning we watched them racing their traditional, locally built wooden outrigger canoes, round and round the bay. 


Anchoring in these islands was often problematic.  High mountains cut by deep valleys can cause freak gusts and sudden changes in wind direction, while the ocean swells seem to find their way in to the most sheltered bays.  Sometimes we just had to up anchor and go when things got too uncomfortable.  But it’s a small price to pay for dramatic scenery and for the chance to be amongst such nice, easy-going people who wear flowers in their hair (men too!) just to go down to the post office.  And in the post office or bank, where you have to queue, there are wide, comfortable benches to sit on and chat to your friends as you wait your turn.   The French are here of course and it’s possible to find baguettes and croissants in the larger villages if you get to the shop by 8.00am –(having rowed ashore first and walked a mile or so!).  We have read and heard that the Polynesians deeply resent the French presence.   But during our short stay in the Marquesas we experienced no tension, and the dominating culture felt very definitely Polynesian with much activity around traditional skills: music, dance, carving, weaving, canoeing, agriculture, hunting.


As I write this on our last night, anchored off the island of Nuku Hiva, the sound of drumming and singing is wafting across the dark waters of the bay.  We’re going to miss these islands, but we’ll be seeing more of the Polynesian people.  Next come the Tuamotus, a group of islands in complete contrast to the Marquesas as they are low-lying coral atolls.  They are known as the Dangerous Archipelago as the islands are hard to see and there are countless reefs.   We are headed for Rangiroa, where Nick’s brother Chris and daughter, Ellie will join us.   If we manage to find our way through the reefs we should be there by 24 July, and will send this.   Best wishes, Liz and Nick


Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008