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Sailingfast 2018 728x90

RoRC report from French Polynesia, Gambiers

by Sue and Andy Warman 18 Sep 2020 01:59 BST
Out to the Motus © Sue and Andy Warman

Like many world cruisers, Spruce has been restricted in her travel range during the viral epidemic circling the globe.

The initial few weeks of our sojourn was sullied not by the virus, (The Gambiers remain free of contagion), but by uncertainty over our status and what policy might evolve towards foreign vessels and their crews in French Polynesia. Normally, if one were to be displaced from a country, another jurisdiction can be found as refuge. However, this was a novel situation. Most alternative nations were, and remain, closed to new arrivals. We know of a yacht that arrived in the Solomon Islands without approval; the crew are in jail. Timing and seasons affect weather and safety at sea. Going west in the South Pacific without an exit plan before the next cyclone season might be foolish. Attempting a passage to New Zealand in mid-winter is also not recommended.

A number of yachts that arrived in the Gambiers had already left their departure ports before French Polynesia issued a "lock-down decree". One British yacht took 70-days to arrive from Panama, a brief pause at Easter Island terminated, without landing, when denied entry. That long-time at sea single-hander then did a fourteen-day quarantine upon arrival in Gambiers. OCC members here all arrived after lockdown: Bengt (Wim & Elisabeth from Sweden); Kalea (Jacques & Elenise from USA, but with close links to both Switzerland and Peru); and Spruce. All had breakages, all were allowed to stay.

The positive outcome has exceeded expectations for those who once feared becoming stateless voyagers. Possibly, heavy-handedness was applied by some officials elsewhere in French Polynesia, less pleasant for vessels that arrived at Tahiti or The Marquises. We heard tales of boats required to stay in poorly sheltered anchorages. Swimming, including keeping hulls and propellers clean of growth, was forbidden, crews were virtually imprisoned on their boats with limited access to shore. The situation may have been exacerbated due to over-zealous interpretation of rules by agents advising local enforcement personnel. 900-miles from Tahiti, in The Gambiers the restrictions were reasonably managed by the local team of Gendarmes. We fully understood that local fears made a visible quarantine period for arriving vessels necessary: residents are frightened of contagion once again arriving aboard European ships, as their oral history describes. Post-quarantine, the restrictions were not too onerous. Supplies of food brought by ship from Tahiti were ample, hikes on local trails were permissible with social distancing rules applied, swimming was allowable, one could take a vessel out of crowded Rikitea to the motus as long as people kept separated. Therefore, boat systems could be operated, vessels maintained as seaworthy, crews could keep fit and active, a good diet was available.

Several new arrivals needed repairs; there are no shore facilities here. We needed a new rigging wire, it was made by a rigger in Tahiti and sent on a supply ship: expensive but available. Other boats that needed parts shipped from Europe were serviced with the help of agents in Tahiti. Spruce also needed a new autopilot. It took a couple of months to arrange delivery but it will arrive on a supply ship due shortly.

When we hear stories from other countries, of crews trapped in marinas, unable to go anywhere, of a few boats being attacked by fearful local people, of some crews being stricken ill without medical support, we know we have been fortunate. French Polynesian Gambiers, her people and officials have tolerated and looked after the 36-boats that spent the crisis period here rather well. Thanks also go to OCC's Fiona Jones who has been working behind the scenes to assist crews: by liaising with government officials and other authorities to smooth out issues for those "Sojourning in Paradise".

For yotties already here in French Polynesia, the islands are once again open for cruising. Several boats have already left The Gambiers for Marquesas, Tuamotus and Tahiti. Dependent upon tourism, French Polynesia will soon re-open to external flights. It may be that our Coronavirus story is not yet finished. A number of yachts presently in French Polynesia are keenly waiting to discover if they will be allowed to head for New Zealand or Australia before the next cyclone season in November.

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This article has been provided by the courtesy of Ocean Cruising Club.