Tennis Ball

We were taking turns looking at the moon last night though the binoculars. It was just stunning. So clear. You could see its relief, the craters, the cheese.  I kept going back just to have one last look. A couple of nights earlier, our new friend Eric, the retired Brittany dentist, had pointed out Mars and Saturn and Mercury. The night sky can look exceptional here. And it helps to have someone who can point out interesting stuff too. 

For my birthday last year, we were in the UK. Dave, my dad and I went to the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland. The show started at midnight which necessitated driving up into the forest, hoping for clear skies. We left Hexham on a clear bright night but as we drove north we could see the fog gathering over the river Tyne and by the time we arrived at 11.45pm, it was thick and claggy meaning no telescopes tonight. Oh well. We know about weather and plans and occasional disappointments, being boat dwellers. 

We had an enjoyable evening but I was sad we’d couldn’t look out into the dark skies. That was going to be the fun bit. There was however a particular story that stood out. One of the physicists / astronomers talked about the scale of the universe. Here’s my recollection of how it went. 

He showed us a photo which just looked like lots of stars. He explained it was actually many overlaid photos of just one particular area of the sky taken by the Hubble telescope built up over an extended period of time. There were 3,500 pinpricks of light in the photo. I didn’t count them. I believed him.

He explained that each of these faint pin pricks of light was a galaxy. I was able to make sense of this by reminding myself that the Milky Way is our galaxy with the sun and associated planets, Jupiter, Uranus, Pluto etc.  

He told us that each galaxy will have a minimum of 600 million stars, stars like our sun, and so far, astronomers have never found a star without at least one planet. That’s minimum by the way. The Milky Way has an estimated one hundred thousand million. Gulp.

The mind numbing bit came next. Get a friend to hold up a tennis ball up in the sky, 100m away from you. The Hubble telescope picture represented a piece of sky the same size as that tennis ball.

If my memory is correct, he said that was 1/24 millionth of the whole sky. So 3,500 galaxies in one tennis ball at 100m. Proving in no uncertain terms, it’s all pretty big out there. That’s a darned feast of stars and planets. Numbers too big by far to get my diminishing brain power to fully understand. But definitely worth thinking about occasionally. The tennis ball is a useful unit of size. 

Back in a smaller space, two delivery companies are attempting to transport a couple of packages from the States to French Polynesia. One package is in Australia, the second is in Korea. How, why? Will we ever see them? As Toyah said, “It’s a mystery”. They make take longer to get here than light does from a place far far away. Packages are dictating when we move SE down the tuamotan chain. 

And finally, I met a local family when I was out on a bike ride a couple of days ago. We had a smiley disjointed mismatched french / english conversation. Football teams have on many occasions during our travels provided a useful way of talking geography and where we are from. Usually locals will be familiar with Man United or Liverpool. This guy. The first team he mentioned completely unprompted, Newcastle. I’ll just repeat that. Newcastle. He’s now my friend for life. 

Maggie’s Handbag

My mind was wandering as I took myself off for a little paddle board trip up the atoll yesterday. Remember. Always go upwind to start so coming home is easier. (I won’t go into wind shifts here thank you very much!)  But if you go further than what your breakfast fuel tank holds, coming back, even with the wind behind, is a real effort, only remedied by instant gorging on cheese and crackers.

It was a beautiful day. The rhythm I set for paddling required no conscious thought, letting my mind meander off to other places. 

My teeny tiny world just feels lighter this week. The news that a vaccine for COVID is on the near horizon and the election shenanigans in the USA delivering a hopeful result, means I’m much more optimistic for the future. I projected forward to a year from now and felt much more positive about what footprint us humans will be leaving behind. It won’t be a perfect shape. I do believe it will be a better shape. For most people.

I then replayed some history that is solely age related. There were a whole heap of opportunities and possibilities that came into Dave and I’s life, purely because we were born in a certain era. Here’s a non exhaustive random list.

  1. Grants for further education 
  2. Housing benefit so as a student, if you’re rent was more than £12.50 (I think) a week, you could claim the overspend back from Maggie’s handbag. Plus if you weren’t living in you digs during the holidays, that money came back too. Nice. 
  3. Unemployment benefit – dole money. You could sign on in the holidays
  4. The introduction of budget airlines – £1.99 flights to Dublin Prague Geneva etc
  5. Explosion of travel possibilities further afield  – fly for 6 hours for reasonable money and be in a totally different culture
  6. No major wars that have seriously impacted us
  7. Buying a house for sensible money, like £30k or £40k and with the housing boom, be able to watch it double or triple in value
  8. The speed and development of technology. What’s happened since the mid 90’s is astounding
  9. Full size chocolate bars. A penguin or an orange / mint  club from your Granny were of the appropriate size and thickness
  10. The beauty that is the NHS. I’ve had my fair share of money from this ‘free at the point of entry’ institution. Thank you!
  11. The export of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
  12. The fact you can start drawing down on your personal pension at 55. We like this now we’re old

Do I have something deep and meaningful to say to summarise these thoughts? No not really. I’ll just continue on with my happy little life knowing I have had some ups and downs, but the up’s do come out seriously on top. 

And on a boaty note, the ship comes in on Wednesday. There hasn’t been one for two weeks. There could be fresh provisions. That’s an up. And after that a new atoll, further east – Tahanea or Makemo or Ile d’Hao. A bit more geography research folks.😀 Happy Saturday. 

Testing Testing

Dave’s olfactory senses are working just fine. If you’re struggling to find a COVID test, we accidentally invented one as I do believe a loss of smell can be one of the symptoms. 

The test is relatively simple to set up and administer. Buy some cans of beer in Carrefour in Papeete, Tahiti. (The shop and the location are actually irrelevant but it gives a sense of place to the story). Stack them carefully in a cupboard then sail 250 miles to windward. The boat will inevitably heel so dislodging can happen. 

I guess the sight equivalent would be having an eagle eye. Well Dave has an eagle nose.

He went down below into the cabin about 10.30 in the morning. I was in the cockpit keeping an eye on things. In reality there wasn’t very much to keep an eye on. The Pacific is pretty devoid of other boats once you get a handful of miles off shore. Just occasional birdies and sealife. 

Five minutes later he’s back up on deck with a can of beer in his hand. Hmmm. The beer police aka me, are alerted. We don’t drink on passage. Well we had a snifter crossing the equator and one on Christmas Day on our way to the Cape Verde islands. Having a chilled glass of white wine on arriving after days at sea is one of life’s little luxuries and something to look forward to.

‘Hello, hello, hello, what’s going on here?” The beer police are an inquisitive bunch. The defence made their case. Like a bloodhound, Dave reported to being drawn to a cupboard as a particularly familiar smell was emanating from its interior. Escaping beer. The cans had dislodged slightly and one of them had punctured necessitating immediate drinking. ‘I had no choice, me lord, but to drink it then and there.”

So that’s the test. A man with a nuanced beery nose will sniff out an open can at 20 paces. Hopefully proving an absence of Covid. 

We left Tahiti in the Society Islands, after just under 3 weeks there with a working fridge / freezer plus a boatload of stuff for the next few months. We had a couple of nights on Moorea, an island 15 miles north of Tahiti. The Society Islands combine the hills of the Marquesas with the atoll reefs of the Tuamotus. They make for popular tourist destinations and are much busier than what we’ve previously been use to.

Moorea has great trails to walk and we squeezed in one before our sail back east to Fakarava in the Tuamotus. Currently we’re anchored at Harifa. A fine sheltered spot in the SE corner of the atoll. We plan to spend at least a week here decompressing after the shock of city living.

Stamp

I never imagined I’d become an official resident of French Polynesia. Albeit temporarily. But that’s what we’ve applied for at the High Commission to be able to stay here legally, above board with an official stamp for the next year. We’ve been through a modicum of bureaucracy to get to this point but not as much as Barbados which still takes the biscuit – in triplicate.

Papeete, on Tahiti, the capital of French Polynesia has been our home for the past two weeks. There are hills and ridges behind the city but so far we’ve been no where near them. Our days have been filled with getting organised for 6 months in the Tuamotus and Marquesas, which offer few services and facilities. Our shopping list has included super sexy things like pipe, a bilge pump, oxalic acid and engine oil.

We gave our 72 hours departure notice to the people who needed to know and then the fridge / freezer decided to stop working. The freezer was rammed full of food. We needed to find some kind person with available freezer space in super quick time. After unsuccessfully approaching a couple of locals that we know, thinking they may have large partially filled domestic freezers, we started round the marina randomly asking boaty people if they had any space in their freezer. When meeting new people, an opening gambit of, ‘can we put our food in your freezer” is an interesting opening line when starting a conversation with people you’ve never met. Perhaps dating sites can add it to their lists of what to say when meeting new people. I won’t charge much for the intellectual property. 

Happily, we found a solution and didn’t have to throw away lots of soggy inedible food. The boat next door is unoccupied as the owner is back in Europe. Some friends of ours, happened to have the keys so Dave and Charlie went on onboard, fired up the freezer and all is happy in frozen food world.

Three days later….. the freezer is back in the world of the living. There’s still some carpentry work to do then we will be able to move in the next day or so. 

Back in the real world, COVID is multiplying on Tahiti and from tonight, there’s a traffic curfew from 9pm to 6am. Pretty much everyone round town is wearing a mask. There are restriction on the number of people who can meet together. It’s time to get out to quieter less populated places. 

Lost head

We’ve taken to occasionally listening to Radio New Zealand on the SSB radio in the evening. We can’t go there so this maybe the closest we get for the next year. 

The teatime show, reporting on the day’s news, talked about a short spell of unseasonable weather and snow falling unexpectedly in a town somewhere. Don’t recall exactly where. It was the second item on the national news. To be more precise, a snowman was the second item on the news. Not just a snowman but the fact it’s head had fallen off! Maybe it was a slow news day. In a crazy world, I think we need more stories like this. Poor Mr Frosty. 

We are in Papeete on Tahiti. It was a two day sail from Fakarava. A downwind blast with a dying wind as we approached the island. Buddies Holly and Jarne had sussed out a spot for us in the marina and were waiting to take our lines. Nice. 

We’ve been here about a week and the days have been full. Papeete is a large town, population around 200,000 I believe. It’s a complete contrast to the Tuamotus. Shops, traffic, people, services, frozen yoghurt bars. And Covid is present which is something we haven’t had to contend with since Panama. As we’re going to be in the Pacific for a goodly number of months, all the things we planned to shop for in New Zealand are now being looked for high and low here. 

Our big purchase has been new chain for Grace. Our previous one was disappearing akin to a bar of soap. Every time we used it, there was less of it. And the deck was getting covered in rusty detritus each time we brought it up. We’d never really considered chain as a disposable item but the majority of ours came with Grace when we bought her so no idea how old it was. We added about 30m before we left Hull. We cut that section off and will keep it for our secondary anchor. Can’t throw things out. It’s against the law on a boat according to Dave! You never know when…..

We have a list of other exciting items to source. Toilet service kits, new flip flops, silicone bread trays, varnish, ink for our printer, the list goes on. There are many lines of items on an excel spreadsheet sheet. Plus a massive food shop. We buy in bulk. 24 cans of tomatoes, 24 cans of tinned peaches, 24 cartons of milk. Days can disappear walking round trying to source stuff.

But you’ll all be pleased to know we found a Chinese wholesale shop selling sacks of potatoes,  Carrefour sells Earl Grey tea bags and the market does a nifty line in cabbages. There are some reasons to visit town. 

Officialdom

The expected arrived. 

“The Director General has decided not to grant Grace of Longstone permission to arrive in New Zealand for humanitarian reasons. In making his decision, the Director General has received advice and determined that a potential future cyclone does not provide a sufficient basis to warrant an exemption for COVID 19 Public Health Response (Maritime Border) Order No. 2” 

An official way of saying, you haven’t got a good enough reason to get in. Which I can just about accept. However, committing to spent fifty thousand dollars on your boat can provide exemption. This unsurprisingly generates mixed emotions in me. How this relates directly to a public health emergency I struggle to understand. Money it would appear has a different health agenda. 

Moving swiftly on, this means the boat will be here in the Pacific for a good few months to come. For cyclone season, November 1st to the end of April, we’ll stay east, watch the weather closely, identify in advance a few places that offer protection, be ready to move quickly if we need to and see what transpires. After April 2021, we’ll have further decisions to make, depending on what shape and level of madness the World is in then. We would like to organise a trip back to the UK at some point. How this will play out, we have no idea. 

This year is shaping up to be a La Niña year. Ocean water temperatures influence where cyclones track and how far across east they occur, or more importantly for us, don’t, in the Pacific. This does offer some good news. Historic data showing cyclone tracks suggest in La Niña years, cyclones have not visited the Tuamotus and Marquesas island groups. To paraphrase the banks though, ‘past tracks may not influence or guarantee future tracks’. But such data offers a basic level of understanding to help make decisions.

Enough about official letters and potential cyclones for now. Some fun stuff. We’ve done lots of snorkelling at the south pass on Fakarava. It’s rather good. Photos of fishies and other marine life for your delight. I had to pinch myself at times. “We’re snorkelling with sharks in the South Pacific”. 

Our next sail will be to Papeete on Tahiti. About 2 days away. Neither of us are in anyway looking forward to a large town with many people. But paperwork necessitates a trip for a long stay visa come December. Thanks Brexit. And the lockers are looking relatively bare so a big shop is required. Plus some replacement and service boat parts. Stuff we’d planned on getting sorted in NZ. Poo. 

Anyone like to place money on the NZ borders opening by October 2021? 

Atoll Life

I heard a little ditty the other day that I’d never heard before. My reaction was, ooh, I quite like the sound of that, I’ll jot it down as there maybe the bones of blog post in that, sometime in the future. 

When we worked away a lot, I recall exhaling quietly going into conference centre rooms or corporate headquarters where ‘cheesy motivational posters’ or corporate values were displayed. I know the intention is to inspire staff and visitors. But they often missed the mark completely. They so often weren’t genuine. I found them shallow and insincere. (For the purposes of balance I do know at least one company who can hold their heads high….. Nando’s 😀)

I once went to a meeting in Barclays Head Office in Canary Wharf. In the foyer were three or four words spelled out in meter high individual blocks. As I entered through the door, the word ‘Integrity’ was in bang in my line of sight. It was very soon after the banking scandal, and surprise surprise,  when there was little or no integrity in how the banks went about their business. ‘You’re going to have to work a bit harder than just putting a few buzz words in your foyer’. At that particular moment in time, I didn’t believe them. Deliver or act in a way that you say you’re going to, or forget it! Credibility shot. 

The ditty that I referred to earlier is this. People are with us for ‘Season’s, Reason’s or a Lifetime’. Made me think about people we’ve met on this trip. And then what constitutes Helen’s wider world. Dave and I  often make friends that are with us for a ‘season’, a period of time. The family on a Dutch boat fit this category nicely. Four of the smiliest people you could possibly meet, they are off further west. Our paths may cross again. Do hope so. 

They called up today on the radio as they headed out of the north pass on Fakarava. We were inside the lagoon heading to the south pass. A loud tuneful version of voices blasting out Happy Birthday came through on channel 18. It’s Dave’s turn to get older today. 

We will have steak and salad for dinner tonight. That’s a treat. Just to clarify…the salad is the treat.  We bought some freshies. 12 tomatoes, 5 cucumbers, a big lettuce, 4 heads of pak choi and a water melon. This constituted at least one item of everything that was available. We are now giving up sailing to pay for our freshies. Cost ….. have a guess? $35. In sterling that’s about £27.50. 

Not much grows in the Tuamotus. Enjoy your 35p tomatoes from Lidl in the UK.  But you don’t get a Pacific Island vista thrown in! Not complaining. 😀

Coconuts

We’ve been learning stuff about the coconut tree. From Bob and Mina. This tree really is an all rounder providing materials for shelter, fire, food and comfort. Incidentally, they look good in photographs too. If you grew up close to Scotland in the UK, let me tell you, the coconut tree is pretty darned exotic.

I’d always wondered why coconut trees grow at such bizarre angles. Well apparently they have enormous root systems. The roots will hold up trunks that point out almost horizontally. If a tree ‘falls’, the root system is never dislodged. Instead, the tree will snap somewhere on its trunk.

Nothing else grows around them. They spread out their roots, claiming all the water in the earth so the bulbous bit at the bottom of the tree is ram jammed with liquid. Making them very heavy too.

The wood is hard and good for making things and the fronds can be used as roofing materials as well as being woven to produce baskets, place mats and floor coverings.

The coconut itself goes through several phases …. When young, I understand this to be when they are green, they are filled with water. Flatten the bottom so the nut will stand on a surface without rolling away, hack the top off to create a drinking hole and voila, you have your glass and drink in one. Adding rum apparently can enhance the taste. Umbrellas are optional. No plastic of course.

Having drunk the liquid, the nut can be cut in two to reveal the meat. In a young nut, the flesh is soft and moist, bright white, quite thin and comes away easily when scrapped with a spoon. The older the nut, the thicker the meat requiring a heartier spoon action and the taste is stronger. Young is better in my book. I’m assuming the liquid and the flesh are mixed together to make coconut milk which we buy in cans. And added to oils and potions to create suntan cream, shampoo and associated products.

As the nut gets older, the inside changes so there’s no liquid but a solid-ish candy floss type substance inside. This is called copra and is used to feed chickens, dogs and hermit crabs.

Dried nuts burn really well and of course dried shells provide excellent sound effects for horse clippety clopping. The Knights that say Nee being a prime example.

There endeth my coconut tree information broadcast.