We decided to spend a week in Rikitea which is the main anchorage of Mangareva. Typically, we try to avoid staying in this anchorage for that length of time because it is often crowded with other cruising boats. However, it is the main island with the only village and we needed to get a few things done like fixing our alternator plate and provisioning. As a bonus we would have time to spend with our local friends who live in the main village.
The Rikitea anchorage was crowded with over 30 boats. In addition, we were hit with a maramu (storm) which brought rain, high winds, rolly waves, and cold weather. But there is always lemonade to be made with those lemons.
We hung out with our local friends Stefan and Manu a lot. They have baby goats that needed constant feeding and cuddling. I signed up for that chore. I dragged Missy and Yanel (HooDoo) along to help out.
Stefan’s Baby Goats
Polynesian Party Sugar Shack
We invited Stefan, Manu, and Popo back onboard Sugar Shack for the weekend. We had planned on sailing to another island, but bad weather made it a weekend at anchor in Rikitea. Dada and his two kids came for dinner and brunch the next day but did not stay the night like the others. Our local friends brought an immense about of food and showed us how to prepare meals Polynesian style.
Tangled and Twisted
One day during our 10-day stay in Rikitea we had a particularly hard blow (gusty winds). It whipped us around and close to a float. We watched it and felt that we were far enough away to avoid getting tangled. However, when we woke the next morning, we discovered the ball wrapped around the chain and the bridle.
We could not do anything about it as the winds were howling and the seas were a large. We finally get a calm day with no wind and no swell a week later.
Matt starts to pull up the chain only to realize that it is not one float, but many. In fact, it looks like we hooked the entire pearl float farm! These shots were taken from the bow looking down.
We had to tie a secondary line to raise the chain since the floats were all tangled. Of course, I got the line all messed up and it over rode onto itself.
Matt hops back in the dinghy to try to figure out this mess. 5 balls, tons of line and everything tethered to a big cement block at the bottom of the 16-meter Riketea anchorage.
After several hours, we finally came to the realization that we could not detangle this mess without getting the hooka or dive gear out. Our friends on Hoodoo have a dive compressor and offered up one of their dive tanks.
Diving the Tangled Web
The good news about having to dive this mess in Rikitea is that we get to check out Matt’s dive gear which has not been in use for a awhile. Matt got all his gear on and went down under. It took him well over an hour to remove everything including 6 floats, a pear net, half dozen lines in various widths, and 3 pearl floats anchors. It appears Gambiers did not want us to leave either.
This post is a long time in the making so bear with me. It all started back in mid-February 2020 when we were trying to leave the Marquesas. One alternator decided it did not want to be attached to the engine…
We rose early on the morning that we planned to leave for the Gambiers. Not because we wanted to leave early, but because we anchored on top of another boat’s anchor. We had to start the engines and move our boat forward so they could safely retrieve their anchor. Not a big deal, but an early morning.
The Bay of Virgins (in the Marquesas) is a gusty little devil, with katabatic winds coming down the valley. All good, took a while but we were able to maneuver out of the other boat’s way without dislodging our anchor.
While Matt waited for the other boat to sort out their anchor, he heard a loud clunk. Sort of a smack, crack, clunk. He figured I had opened or closed a bilge or something. But, no, not me. He did not mention it to me right away so I was clueless.
A few hours of going over the forecast and future forecast, we finally decided to get going. As usual the “pre-flight engine checks” were in-order. This time a surprise of all surprises.
When Matt opened the port hatch to the engine room, he saw the auxiliary alternator that charges the house batteries, was missing in action. WTF? This is a 50lb, white alternator. It’s a hard thing to miss.
The belts were not on the front of the engine. Turns out the engine mount that holds the heavy alternator gave out, ¼ steel plate broke right off. The plate that holds the alternator is also part of the engine mount. So, when we go to fix it we will have no use of the port engine.
Pretty sure that was the smack, crack, clunk, sound he heard earlier. Guess we will be looking for a welder in the Gambiers.
Project on Hold
A week after we arrived in the Gambiers, we attended a Sunday Funday BBQ in Taravai where Matt was able to ask several people about local welders. It appears there are two people who have the tools and capabilities. One cruiser had something welded by the main group of welders and he was not impressed with their work. The other is a friend of a friend that we would have to hunt down.
Looks like we will put this project on the back burner for a few weeks. This is a secondary alternator that is used to charge the house batteries. So, without it we just have to use the Starboard secondary alternator to charge the batteries. We have 4 alternators (two for the engines and two for the house batteries).
Fast forward past some down time, then the corona virus 45-day quarantine, and we are at 3 months later. Our friends on Storm Along have a metal boat and Niels is a welder with all the welding equipment. He has agreed to help us out if we can get some extra steel for the support brackets.
We come up with a game plan. Matt and I need to find some steel to reinforce the plate in three sections. Then we will meet Nils on the beach to weld the plate back together. Now, to find some steel.
Stefan to the Rescue
Fast forward a few more weeks and we are back in the anchorage of Rikitea in Mangareva. We asked our local friend Stefan if he knows anyone who can do some welding for us. He works at the school which has professional technical training and we heard they teach welding. He asked what we needed and to our great surprise he had all of the tools, equipment, steel, and supplies.
Stefan cut three pieces of steel to Matt’s specifications. The triangle will be welded to the vertical and horizontal pieces. The long flat bar will be welded between the alternator plate and the engine plate on the bottom. The short flat bar will be welded between the same two plates but on top.
We met Niels at the beach with all of equipment. We used our 220v Honda Generator for power. It worked great for the grinding and for short welds. Niels was able to make the initial weld holding the two pieces together. Then Niels and Matt started off by grinding the pieces for a better weld.
Then the boys attach the first support bracket across the bottom of the two plates. The image below shows them testing placement, then grinding the bar, then Matt holds it in place for initial small welds and then Niels tries to do a long weld.
Unfortunately, the Honda generator was not strong enough to power the welding equipment which required a 100 amps (at 220volts). Looks like we need a Plan B.
We visit the local “Commune” where the islands has most of its machinery and a welding shop (the place mentioned above that did not do such a good job for another sailor). They graciously allowed us to use their power to complete our job.
Commune Building in Rikitea
Matt got to grinding the remaining parts while Niels welded. Perfect set up to complete our project.
The welding was complete about 90 minutes later. The big ugly weld was not Neils but the previous weld we had done in St. Lucia.
Next, Matt sprayed a anti-corrosion paint and two coats of Volvo green paint to match the engine.
Pearl lovers will be intrigued by how French Polynesian pearls are harvested. Last year, we learned a lot when we visited Dada’s pearl farm on the east side of Mangareva (see post). This year I organized another pearl farm tour with a fresh batch of cruisers. Lucky for us, they were harvesting the pearls so it was perfect timing.
We were anchored in the far NE corner of the Gambiers archipelago – near an island called Puaumu. We had cruisers from 4 other boats join us on Sugar Shack where we made a short motor to the north side of Totegegie which is closer to the pearl farm. From there we jumped in 2 dinghies and made our way across the lagoon to the pearl farm which was about 1.6 nm away.
Dada and his brother own the house (or shack) above the water, but they lease the space in the water. Yep, they have to pay rent to have this facility in the water. In addition, they rent the space where they farm their pearls which is about 3-5 miles away from their processing facility.
Dada’s Pearl Farm
Dada is an excellent teacher, tour guide, and host. He speaks English wonderfully and has been featured in several magazines.
Dada grows some of his oysters from babies. However, he also has to supplement his stock by purchasing young oysters from “growers.” These young oysters are placed in round netting in shallow water so they can be monitored as they grow. After 3/5 months they are considered mature enough for the next phase.
Harvesting begins next. The divers retrieve the nets and bring them to the processing facility (blue house over the water). They are pressure washed and then expertly opened a smidge where a divider is placed. Dada had two people doing this process. You have to be very careful not to damage the oyster. There is only a very small area on the oyster that can be opened.
Opening and inserting the dividers
The prepped oysters are then moved to the “seeders.” Dada’s seeders are actually stuck in China due to the virus so he had to rent seeders from another pearl farmer. Harvesting is very specific to timing. If Dada could not find seeders, he would stand to risk losing his harvest.
Harvesting is a meticulous job. The workers arrive around 0800 and work until the days harvesting is done (usually around 5p-6p). They work 5 days a week which doesn’t sound bad, but it is exhausting in its perfection.
The seeder takes the oyster shell with a divider in it and places it in a clamp. Using long, skinny tools, they exam the oyster and check for sickness and colors. If the oyster is healthy, they will insert a nucleous to start the pearl process. The nucleous is made of shell and comes in various sizes. The nucleous’ are the little white balls in lower photo. If you zoom in on the top photo you can see the pearl in the oyster’s pocket.
Insertion of nucleous & nucleous
The divider is then removed and the shell is placed in a bucket. Once the bucket is full, another worker comes in and ties the oyster back to the pocket nets and prepares it for the submersion process.
Seeding the Pearls
There were two seeders. One was doing the initial seed (with the young oysters) and the other was doing a second seed. The second seed removes the nucleous which is now covered in a pearl outer shell and inserts another nucleous the same size as the original pearl. The pearls on the black cloth are sellable pearls. The three blue buckets represent varying degrees of quality of pearls. The white balls on the lower photo are nuclei waiting to be added. A seeder can harvest between 700-900 pearls a day. Imagine that tedious work over and over and over for 5 days a week, 10 months a year.
Tools of the Trade for the seeder
Oysters inside colors start to become more vibrant with the sun. The colors of the shell are indicative of the colors of the pearl. The 7-pocket nets with the newly seeded oysters are labeled with colored thread, and submerged 4-5 meters under the water for 18 months. They are taken out every 3 months to be washed and cleaned to ensure healthy growth. Typically, the oysters will only be out of the water for 45 minutes.
Using Every Part of the Oyster During Harvesting
Every single part of the oyster is used. The pearl, the oyster (meat), the shell. The meat is sold to locals who eat it. The shells are sold in bulk to buyers (usually China) who make buttons and jewelry. The top photo is a bag full of shells being shipped to China. The bottom photo are the broken shells that will be sold to different buyers.
Inside of the Oyster
Dada showed us the inside of the oyster which has 5 parts. Top photo: 1 is the sack where the pearl grows. It excretes the stuff that coats the nuclei and creates the pearl. 2: is the part of the oyster that grows from the inside of the shell to the outside. It allows the oyster to “stick” on to other things like coral or rocks. 3: is the main part of the oyster that is edible raw. Yep, I tried it! 4: is the part of the oyster that can be edible if prepared properly (we did not eat this part). 5: is the pearl.
Tools of the Trade for the seeder
The Oyster Business
Dada’s expenses as a pearl farmer:
Pays Tahiti rent for the water space under his pearl processing house (annual)
Tahiti is paid rent for the water where his oysters are placed inside the lagoon (annual)
$2500 per seeder (monthly
Transportation (to and from China), housing, food, and daily transport (annual)
Local workers including divers, boat drivers, pressure washers, and cleaners/openers
Shipping of pearls back to Tahiti to be evaluated.
Sure is an expensive to run a pearl farm. Especially when you consider that only 40-50% of the oysters produce a sellable pearl and only 20-25% produce “quality” pearls. Usually they sell their pearls in bulk to China or Japan which reduces the price even further.
Right now, Dada’s pearl farm is generating 60,000 pearls. Normally, he will produce 100,000 pearls a year so things are tight due to the virus.
Pearls are judged on their color. French Polynesian pearls are known for their dark colors. Deep blues, greens and purples. The light-colored pearls are not desirable. The pearl is also ranked by shine / luster and quality (lack of indents, marks, lines). The final evaluation is the thickness of the pearl. The distance from the outside to the nucleous. This is done with a machine and not the naked eye.
Makes you appreciate your pearls a little more.
An Abundance of Junk Pearls
Dada had invited us to visited him at his home in Rikitea. So, a few weeks after our pearl farm visit, we met him onshore. He had bags and bags and bags of pearls all over the place. Most were considered “junk pearls” and are not sellable. But to us they were lovely. He brought 5 or 6 bags of the junk pearls for us to come through. There were thousands of pearls to go through and it was over whelming.
Bags and bags of discarded pearls
We had Dada turn a few of our pearls into jewelry which allowed us to watch yet another step in the life of a pearl.
First, he expertly reviews he pearl to determine where to put the pendant hook. Usually he covers up an imperfection.
Next the pearl is placed in the grips and a thin drill is slowly guided to the desired location.
The pendant hook or earring backing is placed in the hole to ensure the depth is correct.
The pendant hook or earring backing is glued into place.
Vice grips are secured around the pearl to let the glue dry.
5 hours later the jewelry is completed.
Dada creating some jewelry
The group from left to right: Chris, Neils, Lynette, Me, Dada, Elainise, Missy, Yanell, Floris, Ivar, Fred and Jacques.