Sailboats return to Rikitea

Quarantined in French Polynesia

Covid 19 aka the corona virus.  French Polynesia immediately put strong measures in place to reduce the impact of the pandemic in the region.  Effective as of 11 March, all international flights and cruise ships were prohibited from entering FP waters.  All inter-island travel was forbidden (by sea or air) and a curfew was put into place.  On 21 March, the entire population was quarantined (until 4 April). 

Normally, I don’t put dates on posts because our posts don’t go live for 4-6 weeks after they were written.  The reason we do that is to ensure our posts go live every Tuesday and Thursday (even if we do not have internet access).  But this situation is different and dates are required to give you an idea of timing.

I know many of you, if not all of you are sick and tired of hearing about the corona virus and being quarantined.  If that is the case, feel free to skip this post.  However, if you are interested in learning how French Polynesia, a third world country, spread across thousands of miles, handled this pandemic, read on.

Full disclosure:  We do not read or understand French so I am sure there is a lot we did not hear about, read about, or learn from others.  This is just what we discovered as tourists in French Polynesia.  In addition, to our lack of understanding of the main language, we are also without internet.  We are located in the far archipelago called the Gambiers (the southernmost islands of French Polynesia).  In addition, we have not even been staying near the main village within the Gambiers.  We’ve been hiding in the remote islands away from the main land which are mostly uninhabited.

First Week – Early march

The first case in French Polynesia was a government official who traveled from France back to Tahiti in early March.  Within a week 2 more cases were announced.  And the rumors start flying around.  Well, I shouldn’t say “rumors” as much as mis-information.  It wasn’t people being malicious at all – just spreading information that may or may not apply to us here in FP. Some people assumed that French rules would apply here, but that was not always the case.

Second Week

Chaos started by the second week of March.  Smaller islands started closing (The Cook Islands and Galapagos) and the word on the street was that non-residents were going to be repatriated.   Other countries were requiring two-week self-quarantine prior to entering (New Zealand and Australia).

Before the virus, our plan was to head to New Zealand in July via The Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji.  With the smaller islands closed to us it would make an incredibly long and tedious voyage of over 2500 nm.  

Cruisers were posting on the French Polynesia Cruisers Facebook Group (which is a group I started by the way – because you know, I rock 😊)  All non-residents were being repatriated (sent back to their home).  Guests on shore being asked to leave, flights were being cancelled, and more and more cases were popping up.  The FP government did not know what to do with pleasure vessels.  There were not enough places to leave our vessels and most did not have a home to return to (aka Matt and I).

French Poly cruisers stared a WhatsApp group to keep everyone informed on the status of cases in FP and around the world.  WhatsApp is a unique app that allows text communications with very little bandwidth.  So, in most cases we could get WhatsApp texts when we could not get anything else.

Third Week

By the third week in March all hell broke loose.   The FP government sent all FP locals back to their home island.  This is huge as many students’ study in Tahiti and many people work in other islands, trading, shopping etc…  Over 150 students and adults were returned back to the Gambiers.  In my opinion these are the ones that are most at risk for bringing the virus to the Gambiers.  They were in Tahiti where most of the cases were found.

Once all locals were returned home, they shut down all inter-island travel.  The land-based tourists had to get on one of 6 flights back to the U.S. or one of three flights back to Europe.  Then all flights ceased in and out of FP at the end of the week.  No cruiser is allowed to travel between archipelagos and in fact asked to “stay put at their island.”   We were quarantined and stuck in paradise.

Residents Repatriated to their Home Islands

We had front row seats to the last group of locals to come back to the Gambiers.  They are offloaded from a ferry on to shore using all sorts of precautions. Everyone wears gloves and masks (on-board and shore).

Residents return to Gambier during pandemic

Residents return to Gambier during pandemic

The dock is low and it is close to high tide so tables were set up to hold the luggage as passengers disembarked. I would have liked to see them taking temperatures before sending them home, but maybe that is too much to ask.  People from other islands come in pangas to pick up their guests and take them back to outer islands.

Passengers disembark

Passengers disembark

Once everyone disembarked from the ferry, they washed it down, inside and out.

Disinfecting the boat

Disinfecting the boat

Quarantined in Gambier.  A two-week lock down, self-quarantine was put into place where everyone, on land and sea, were required to stay at home (or on their boat) for 15 days.  Locals could go outside to work (if you work in a market, bank, or medical facility).  In addition, locals could only step outside to get food, fuel or medical care and only if it was within a 2-kilometer radius of their home.  

Return to the Mainland for the Supply Ship

We are so remote that all of the food and supplies have to come on a supply ship every 3-4 weeks.  Only some local fruit and eggs are grown on the main island in the Gambiers. 

The supply ship arrived while we were quarantined and it was pure chaos.  We had ordered (3) 200-liters of diesel to share between 2 other boats and were only able to get (1) 200-liter barrel.  Primarily because they wouldn’t allow us on shore until after 5p and curfew was 8p so we just did not have time to transfer the fuel.  All the pleasure boats in Gambiers converge in Rikitea to meet the supply ship.

Sailboats return to Rikitea

Sailboats return to Rikitea

The next day, we did go to shore at 0700 to procure some fresh veg and frozen goods.  Armed with my mask and gloves, I got in line behind 3 other locals.  They were allowing 4 people in the market at one time.  

Masked up to get provisions

Masked up to get provisions

Cruisers may go to shore if they ask permission first and then they “may” be escorted by the police.  We are only allowed to go to shore for food, fuel, or medical care.  With prior approval from the police, one person may go ashore at a time and only for an hour at a time.  In addition, the person ashore has to carry a govt form stating their business for being on shore and the date and time. 

Boats Arriving Despite the Country’s Closure

Any new boats arriving are being sent to Tahiti, regardless of their original destination.  Once in Tahiti, they will be allowed to refuel, provision, and do minor repairs and then asked to leave.

This was horrible news to the cruising community as it is the Pacific Passage time.  What does that mean?  It means hundreds if not thousands of boats that have prepared to cross the Pacific will be rerouted, turned away or unable to come.  It takes many, many months to prepare for a crossing of this magnitude.  Now, their choice will be to stay where they are (Mexico, Panama, U.S., Chile) and wait until next season (next year) which can be troublesome organizing visas.  Go to Mexico which seems to be the only open country, or go home.  So sad.

Many cruisers complained because they had been quarantined on their boat during their long passage from other countries (between 14-30 days), but FP wanted them to be quarantined where they could monitor them for an additional two weeks.  Their country, their rules.

Restrictions Get Tighter

A cruiser friend of mine had made a few masks and generously gave me one.  Yeah, as I did not have any medical masks.

Even being quarantined on our boat, it is still breath taking here.  A sunrise in Rikitea, Mangareva (mainland Gambiers):

Sunrise surprises with its brillance

Sunrise surprises with its brillance

On 28 March, the government announced an extension of the quarantine to 15 April.  They also made the rules stricter including no swimming or water-sports.  Kind of hard for boaters as we have to be in the water to check through hulls, clean the bottom, monitor maintenance, etc…  They made exceptions for us that we can do these maintenance things as long as we are not near the local population (near their shores).  In addition, they implemented a curfew of 2000-0500 and anyone out during those hours will be fined 160,000 xpf ($160).

As of 3 April, there are 37 cases of Covid-19 in FP.  One in Rangiroa (Tuamotus), three in Mo’orea and the rest in Tahiti.  They recently received a huge shipment of tests and are planning on testing the general population in Tahiti and Mo’orea only.  It has been 4 days since a new case has been confirmed.  There are zero cases confirmed in the Gambiers.

What Has Sugar Shack Done

We have anchored away from the mainland off of uninhabited islands.  For the most part we have been miles away from other people for the first 12-14 days.  Another boat called HooDoo with a lovely, young American couple came to anchor about .5 miles away from us.  They were under passage for 23 days (essentially their own quarantine) and came here to be quarantined to their boat for an additional 14 days.  We felt comfortable being around them as they have not been exposed to other people for 6 weeks.

Being far away from locals and the authorities, we felt comfortable pushing the line a little.  We did jump in the water, swam a little, cleaned the bottom of the boat and did some underwater projects.  We read a lot, worked on puzzles (on devices), watched movies and worked on boat projects. 

Loosening of the Quarantine Restrictions

The quarantine is lifted after five weeks of solitary confinement on the boat.  The FP government loosened the quarantine restrictions in the outer archipelagos (not in Tahiti and Mo’orea where the virus is located).  We are located in the Gambiers which is furthest archipelago from the Societies where Tahiti and Mo’orea are located.  We have not had any confirmed cases, but then again, we have not issued one test.

In the outer archipelagos we are allowed to travel within the archipelago (to one of the 12 islands) but we cannot leave the Gambiers archipelago.  The eateries open for take-out, the markets are open for regular hours, and we can visit with other people in groups of 6 or less, while maintaining 6’ social distancing.  However, there is still a curfew from 2000-0500 and liquor is not being sold (only beer and wine Mon-Fri 0800-1600).

Little More Freedom

A month later (7 May), we have a little more freedom.  The eateries are now open (if they wish) and the curfew has been lifted.  We are still asked to maintain social distancing and have been asked to refrain from having large social gatherings.

The Last Bit of Freedom

Now, if we could only get permission to travel between the archipelagos!  

We are Free

On 21 May the FP government allowed pleasure vessels that have already cleared into the country to travel between archipelagos.  Great news.  The only problem is the local gendarmerie in the Gambiers are stating that we cannot leave until the 29th of May.  Not really a hardship as the weather is not good for a 4-day passage.  So, we wait…but we are free!

Being quarantined in the Gambiers was the best place to be!

Where is the wind?

Aukena aka Bernard’s Island

Even though we are technically quarantined, we can still move our boat away from the mainland of Mangareva to a more secluded island (start of the Covid-19 craziness and quarantine).  At this point, being away from other people is preferred.  So, Matt and I decided to go to Aukena island which is also known as Bernard’s island.  Bernard owns a house just below the saddle of the two mountains and is “particular” about who can anchor near his house. Basically, everyone stays at least 100-meters away from his view.

It is a short 4nm motor from Mangareva to Aukena. We had absolutely no wind, flat seas, and bright sunshine.  Perfect day to move anchorages.  We danced around the hundreds of pearl farm floats and weaved around the larger coral heads before we arrived at our pristine spot. 

The water was a brilliant dark blue and slowly turned to turquoise as we entered the shallower waters.  We dropped the hook in 3 meters of water and called it good!  The top photo is Sugar Shack heading to the anchorage.  The second photo shows the little lighthouse on the peninsula of Aukena and the bottom photo is the very small town.

Aukena Island

Aukena Island

The Boat Invasion

The next day the officials allowed cruisers to move to a safer anchorage as bad weather was supposed to come.  Eight other boats came over to our quiet little anchorage to wait out the storm.  We had some crazy gusts up to 28kts and came from many different directions, but not much rain.  We circled our anchor and made some funny squiggles on the chart.

Now that is a crazy anchor pattern

Now that is a crazy anchor pattern

Two days later all of the boats left and went back to Rikitea.  Yeah, we have the place back to ourselves and were rewarded with a beautiful sunset.

Where is the wind?

Where is the wind?

Sugar Shack enjoying a quiet moment before the other cruisers arrived.

Sugar Shack in Aukena

Sugar Shack in Aukena

 

Managreva on fire

The False Pass at Tarauru Roa

On the southeast corner of the Gambiers lies two motus: Tarauru Roa and Gaioio. The wind shifted and we decided to move to the more protected anchorage of Tarauru Roa. We had never anchored in this area before and had to dodge many pearl floats on the way from Ile de Akamaru. Once we arrived, we determined that we needed to float our chain to avoid getting tangled with the bommies. Always a fun chore to add floats to the chain every 7 meters while setting the anchor. We finally set the anchor after a few failed attempts.

A very stunning sunset behind Taravai. Looks like the orange was just painted into the sky.

Beautiful Orange Sunset at the False Pass

Beautiful Orange Sunset at the False Pass

The False Pass

To the north of us is a “false pass” where there is a gap between the Tarauru Roa motu and Totegegie but the reef still creates a barrier between the lagoon and the sea. Our friends on Leela told us it was great snorkeling there so met them for an adventure. We drove the dinghy as far up the gap that we could without getting stuck during a change in tides. We then had to swim against the current to the “pit” where we encountered lots of black tip and white tip sharks. They have been trained to follow humans as they dive below the surface. The sharks think we are all spear fishing and they want the easy pickins.

A few new friends

A few new friends

We found lots of fun sea life in the coral and on the sea wall. Most wouldn’t sit for a photo session, but I was able to capture a few.

Snorkeling with some fishies

Snorkeling with some fishies

My little fish just loves hanging out near the bottom.

Snorkeling with some fishie

Snorkeling with some fishie

The coral was just starting to grow and come back to life. It was beautiful to see the brains, tables, staghorns and more thrive in this false pass.

Lots of cool coral

Lots of cool coral

Walk Around the Block – Tarauru Roa

Walk Around the Block

Our blocks are considerably different than yours. Just south of Tarauru Roa is the small motu Gaioio. Matt expertly weaved our dinghy in and out of the coral reef to get to Gaioio. Along the way, we found this boobie hanging out on its own thrown.

Now that is a throne!

Now that is a throne!

We wanted to walk around the motu along the coral shore. It was lovely, but a little challenging walking on the debris.

Rocky walk

Rocky walk

The center of the motu is covered in greenery. You can certainly tell the windward side (short bushes) from the leeward side (tall trees).

Windward vs Leeward side of the island

Windward vs Leeward side of the island

The view was considerably better as we got back around to where we left the dinghy. Back on sand. Can you see sweetie in the lower photo?

Finding our way back to Sweetie

Finding our way back to Sweetie in Tarauru Roa

On the uninhabited motus you come across a lot of trash. Primarily from the windward side (brought in from the sea). With nobody living here to clean up it is worrisome to see. At some point, someone made a plastic pile to burn and someone cleaned out a bunch of oyster shells.

Gross and Sad!

Gross and Sad!

Another pretty sunset. It looks like the island of Mangareva is on fire, but in reality, the sun set just as a storm passed by and it provided this awesome photo.

Managreva on fire

Managreva on fire

Tarauru Roa proved to be a peaceful and quiet motu that calmed our souls. With so much drama going around the world (covid19) it was nice to be completely disconnected.