Tag Archives: french polynesia

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

 

Mud Buddies

Mud Buddies on Taravai

You would think we were smarter than the average bear, but sometimes, no.  After 5-days of constant rain we decided we needed to stretch our legs.  There was a hike to the top of the ridge of Taravai that had several ascending peaks.  We decided to shoot for the first peak and if we were feeling “jiggy” after that we might go to the next one.  Ha, that is funny because we did not account for the swamps which quickly turned us into the mud buddies!

It was Leela (Graham and Janicki), Pitufa (Birgit and Christian), and Matt and I.  We all met on shore at Edouard’s house.  He is one of the 7 inhabitants of this island.  He and his wife are the only people who live on the southwest side of the island and they have a huge property.  It is amazing to see the ingenious things they have done.  Edouard and Denise have the only home in the Gambiers that has a natural water fed source.  They have a pipe leading from a waterfall pool, down the hillside, direct to their home.  They also have a large solar panel system that provides all the electricity, and a strong breakwater wall to protect their home.

Edouard's House off Taravai

Edouard’s House off Taravai

Garden of Eden

Edourd and Denise sustain themselves with their bountiful garden.  They have a large green house that is currently being replanted, where they grow tomatoes and cucumbers. In addition, they grow sweet potatoes, lettuce, and mint.  They also have an abundance of fruit trees (pomplemouse, avocados, bananas, papaya, mangoes, lemons).  We each received bags of fruit for 1000xpf ($10 USD) which included a small stock of plantains, stock of bananas, avocados, lemons, and pomplemouse – a huge score for us!

Mud Buddies

Our friends on Pitufa knew of a trail that went around the Taravai ridge.  Thank goodness Christian led the group with a machete in hand.  The start of the trail was not actually a trail, but a break in the bushes.  We tromped through the knee-high grass and fallen trees right into a giant muddy swamp.  For the most part we could walk across the fallen trees to avoid the majority of the mud, but a few weren’t so lucky.  Janicky and Birgit became our first mud buddies.

Mud Buddies

Mud Buddies

Spirits high, we forged ahead.  Under giant tree limbs, over rocks, through the bushes, as we continue to look for the “trail.”  It was a slow hike up because of the mud and slippery hillside.  In addition, whoever was in the lead had to whack the bushes to make a space for passage. Poor Matt became the lead whacker.

Mud Buddy Trail

Mud Buddy Trail

The other fun thing we had to contend with were the wasps.  They build their nests in the tall grass and bushes.  They were fine until we came through with the machete and our feet.  Several of us got stung which was certainly unpleasant.  We had planned ahead and brought several lemons with us as that takes the “bite” out of the sting (sort of).

There were several beautiful views along the way.  One was of the boats (the left photo is Sugar Shack and Yelo – both Catanas).  The top right is a view of the Taravai village and the bottom right is a photo of another island.

We finally made it to the “flat” ridge point, albeit wet and muddy.  The mud buddies made it!

Top of Trail at Taravai

Top of Trail at Taravai

We decided it was too wet to continue on and frankly we were too tired.  It was not terribly far or high, but for some reason we were all tired.  Total of 2.5 miles up 29 floors and 6,603 steps.    We tracked our trail on the way down, but the silly track is yellow on a yellow background.

Mud Buddy Track

Mud Buddy Track

We descended down the mountain with no issues but decided to take the beach route back to avoid the muddy swamp.  It was truly beautiful.

Paradise After Mud

Beautiful Beach Bath

Mud Buddy Track

We made it back to Edouard’s house where we collected our fruit.  He is a super nice, albeit shy man.  He only speaks French so our friends had to translate for us.  We were super grateful for the fresh produce and his hospitality.

Edouard and his girls

Edouard and his girls

Some pretty shots

Sugar Shack enjoying the sunset

Sugar Shack enjoying the sunset

Moonrise

Moonrise