You’d think that a solitary South Seas anchorage filling up with sixty sailors aboard six charter catamarans would spell bad news for the handful of full-time cruisers already moored there. Instead, the impending arrival of the fleet heralded one the highlights of our Pacific crossing.
We were visiting the Tuamotus, an archipelago of low-lying atolls strewn 200 miles east of Tahiti like so many pearls in the ocean. We were drawn to the atoll of Toau by reports of outstanding diving and the hospitality of the two sole inhabitants, who run an impromptu restaurant ashore. So we were surprised to find the couple, Valentine and Gaston, in a somewhat agitated state as they prepared to host their biggest-ever dinner two days hence. “I am praying,” Valentine confided, wary of the task ahead.
Word spread quickly among the four cruising boats tucked into the cozy bay. Without hesitation, everyone rolled up their proverbial sleeves and turned the ramshackle waterfront homestead into a beehive of activity and bon esprit. Gaston and four others worked non-stop for the better part of an afternoon to filet a massive heap of fish brought in from a funnel-shaped trap on the reef. Black-tipped sharks darted along the nearby shoreline, poaching for offal, as island dogs perched atop shallow coral heads and barked furiously at the intruders. Meanwhile, the rest of us kneaded dough, minced garlic, and plaited palm fronds into decorations. Another task was wringing milk from handfuls of sweet white coconut flesh, an ingredient that found its way into every dish on the menu, from bread to poisson cru. A pig was butchered; lobsters were collected from a pen in the atoll’s protected waters; the sun dropped ever closer toward the deepening colors along the sparkling horizon, and the day drew to a weary close.
Picking up where we had left off the next morning, everyone contributed what they could: one cruiser, an electrician, wired overhead outdoor lights, while the SCUBA divers of the group installed an additional mooring to accommodate the incoming fleet in the bommie-strewn bay. This came as a great relief to Gaston, who would otherwise have to free-dive repeatedly to 45-50 feet! Valentine sent us off to pluck flowers for the table and leaves to wrap barbecue-bound treats in. Sixty new plates and cutlery sets had been brought in to the isolated atoll for the occasion, and were now carefully arranged on the long dinner table under the palms – just the job for my eager eight-year-old, Nicky. Napkins were folded, torches fashioned from bamboo stalks, chairs counted and re-counted.
Our excitement peaked that afternoon as one after another yellow-canvassed catamaran glided into the sanctuary of the bay. We had been led to believe that the charter group consisted of the heads of a major marine insurance company, and we prepared to share our (ahem) customer feedback when the opportunity arose. In fact, the group that came ashore was none other than Cruising World Magazine’s own Adventure Charter group on their inaugural Tuamotus cruise, organized by the tireless Peter and Carol King! They seemed equally surprised to discover an international troop of sailors scurrying about under the direction of their Polynesian hosts.
As evening fell, the barbecue overflowed with juicy meat and the colorful dinner table beckoned. Some cruisers served the guests while others manned the kitchen, relaying loaves of sweet bread in and out of the single oven, then delivering them to the tables, steaming hot. As things settled down, we had the opportunity to chat with the newcomers. They were just like the sailors we once had been, dreaming about sailing into the sunset and wistfully eying the rugged yachts of full-time cruisers. I was also delighted to meet the authors of Cruising World’s popular “Log of the Ithaka” column, the gracious Bernadette and Douglas Bernon. It’s a small world after all, even in the remote atolls of the Tuamotus!
The next morning, the catamarans headed off to other destinations, other adventures. We cruisers with vaguer, slow-motion schedules drifted back ashore to clean up, starting with a stack of dishes that seemed to form the highest point of the low-lying motu. But many hands make light work, and things were soon back to normal along the azure waters of the bay. All agreed to hold a potluck that night to give Valentine and Gaston a night off and to socialize. The shared experience had brought us together as more than just anonymous neighbors. The high note of a magical South Seas evening was the heartfelt musical merci that our hosts sang, Valentine strumming her ukulele to Gaston’s accompaniment on the spoons. One song listed the wonders of various Polynesian islands before concluding “Mais j’aime les Iles Tuamotus” in the refrain. We agreed most heartily, and dreamed of one day returning to this Garden of Eden, as Valentine fondly called her home.
What is it that sailors seek in their travels? Unique experiences in isolated corners of the globe, insights into foreign cultures, and often, a wish to contribute to local endeavors in some way. We found all that, and more, in Toau. So thank you, Cruising World Adventure Charterers, for facilitating new friendships and bringing us a rich experience we would never have otherwise enjoyed. Fellow cruisers, take note: next time you get word of a charter fleet heading your way, don’t flee; head to shore instead, and roll up your sleeves!