I had the good fortune yesterday of being on the last night watch that ended at dawn.  We had flown the spinnaker for the last day to make sure we would make it to Hiva Oa in time to check-in with the authorities (more on that later) and get into town for the evening, so we were only about 15-20 miles from the island when the sunlight started to seep over the horizon and I could make out a large, high island ahead on the last minute of my shift.  Land Ho!

What a landfall it was.  You can imagine that it was special for us due to the long time at sea, even though with GPS and modern charts there were no doubts for us about where we were or where land would be. The colors were amazing.  Hiva Oa is a massive, rugged, volcanic island that rises over 3000 feet from the sea.  The cape that we were approaching from the east-northeast had relatively little vegetation, and was connected to the mainland by a narrow but high ridge or isthmus.  The island behind it was majestic.  At first, we could see primarily the outline of Hiva Oa itself, dark on the horizon.  The sun coming up in the east gave the western sky a pink glow, while the sky above the island was filled with white, puffy cumulus clouds that started at the highest peak and spread over the island and high up into the sky.  Higher yet in the sky, a bright Gibbous moon hung over the island as we approached. Because we were from coming in from the east-northeast and were headed for the southwest corner of the island, we had a chance to see the north side of the island on our way in, including a large rock islet off of the northeast tip of the island called Motu Taboo.

As the sun rose higher in the eastern sky, the western sky turned a pale blue and the clouds above the island took on brilliant pastel shades of pink and orange, while the rugged, brown volcanic folds of the eastern cape of Hiva Oa started to come into view.  With the full onset of daybreak, we could see Hiva Oa ahead, with its smaller sister island Tahuata just to the south.  Farther to port was Mohotani and off to starboard was the small island of Fatu Huku.  As we sailed along the south coast of the island, towards the village of Atuona and about a mile and a half from the rocky shore, we could see a light rain shower envelope the cliffs and peaks of the island beside us as the moist tradewinds had their journey across the Pacific interrupted by Hiva Oa’s steep rise from the sea.  The rising air cooled and dropped a light shower over the increasingly verdant mountainsides.  We snapped some photos, but I don’t think there is any way they can capture the sight.

I’ve nearly finished Guns, Germs, and Steel, and learned about the settlement of virtually every Pacific island, as far apart as Easter Island and Hawaii, by Polynesians that ultimately began their journey many centuries before from what is today Taiwan. They were here in large numbers awaiting the Europeans that “discovered” the Pacific and its islands.  Theirs are the voyages and discoveries that are truly amazing.  It’s hard to imagine the feeling they would have had when sighting land or to think of how many must have died on their voyages of discovery spread over many centuries.

After anchoring in the breakwater-protected Taa Huku Bay, Lauren and I headed ashore.  While I was preparing, a dinghy with a French family stopped by to let me know that I shouldn’t bother myself too much.  They’d been here a week and hadn’t seen authorities.  As the husband put it, “Don’t be too busy, the gendarme, they are not so busy you know.”  We would learn later what he meant.  The walk into the village from the bay is about 2 miles, about half of it uphill, and takes about half an hour.  We arrived during the lunch-time break, which here can begin as early as 11:00 am and take till as late as 2:30 pm, so we found most places closed. (On a side note, the Marquesas are 9:30 hours slow on GMT instead of a full hour like most time zones, which is a bit odd, but is apparently done on many islands at the edge of a time zone as well as in Iran and India).  We decided to wait out the lunch break with a baguette and a couple of beers from a small food store where numerous locals seemed to be coming and going.  After returning the two bottles for our $1.25 deposit, we didn’t come out too badly.  The large baguette was $0.80 (by far the cheapest thing on the island) and the half-liter bottles of Hinano made in neighboring Tahiti (700 miles away) were less than $3.50 each.

While we were occupied with our lunch on the front porch of the store, a Swedish couple stopped by to chat with us.  Paul and his wife (with a long name I can’t pronounce) are about our age and are anchored in a ketch right behind us. Paul took a year and a half off of his job to buy a cheap monohull in Ventura, California, fix it up himself, and try to sail it to New Zealand.  The passage from the Channel Islands to Hiva Oa took them 31 days and included a couple of typical adventures — lightning storms in the ITCZ, a sheet wrapped around the prop, and lots of leaks. They’ve “missed” check-in 3 times and gave us the scoop.  The gendarmerie is closed at lunch, but we could pick up the paperwork in the afternoon.  Boats are checked in only from 7am to 11am, and only on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Before clearing in, we have to pay a bond of $1500 for each person on the boat to the bank, but the bank doesn’t do bonds from Friday afternoon to Monday at 8am we learned, only after a half-hour wait at the bank.  Evidently the bond (99% is returned when we leave) has two origins.  One is our long-haired American and European ancestors of the 60’s and 70’s, who crewed on sailboats coming to French Polynesia and liked it so much that some of them took up living on the beach, helping themselves to coconuts & local fruits, etc.  The other seems to be the socialized health-care system that will care for anyone here who is ill.  Hence, there is an alternative to the bond that is essentially the same price — a pre-paid, one-way ticket back to your country of citizenship. 

Among the interesting locals that visited the store while we were outside was a French military man who stopped and ran in while his wife waited in the truck. The priceless thing about him was the uniform. It was typical light camouflage cloth and boots, with a notable exception — shorts that were so short the made you think that the camouflage material had been stolen before the pants were finished.  They were significantly shorter than the basketball shorts of the 70’s.  We’re going to try to sneak a pic if we get a chance, but if we don’t, you’ll have to trust me that it’s not a trivial thing for today’s American to avoid staring and laughing at a French soldier running into a store in what are essentially loose-fitting Daisy Dukes plus 10% or so.

For a three week passage, our boat list isn’t too bad. The port navigation light went out again (we have power-efficient and durable LED lights, but we’ve had some challenges with salt water and old wiring), the spinnaker had a trim piece tear at the very top of the sail on our last day (probably due to chafe with the hoop at the end of the sock), and the sock itself is unstitched in a couple of places.  The starboard engine had been hard to start, although it seems like it may just be an electrical problem.  I need to go back up the stick while we’re in a reasonably calm anchorage and put the main halyard back up on the block.  We may not be able to reef it without chafing, but at least we can fly the full main without having to worry about chafe now that we have a wire rope with an eye spliced into the halyard.  There are a few other items that are small or not anything we’re going to try to fix immediately, but overall not too bad.  The other casualty is the bottom of the boat.  It’s pretty nasty and sooner or later I’ve got to jump in to clean it.  We already got one tip from cruisers on a very quiet bay that would otherwise make a good place to clean it, but apparently the water clouded up and coral died after Survivor was filmed there and the sharks are numerous.

The islands here are absolutely beautiful, but the Internet is very slow an expensive.  The Internet cafe is the post office, where you can bring your own computer for $10/hr.  Wes found Wi-Fi here on the boat for closer to $5/hr, but it’s pretty slow, so we won’t be able to do much in the way of uploading pictures until we get to Tahiti.  If you’d like to see what we’re seeing, you could try Googling “Hiva Oa” or even using Google’s image search instead of a general Internet search.