We finally left the Gambier Islands on Sunday 15th June, at least as finally as is possible when your passage and plans depend on the weather. We had initially planned to leave on the Friday, but having checked out with the gendarmes, the other yachties pointed out that Friday was the 13th, and if there's one thing that sailors are, it's superstitious. Besides, we still had a few jobs to get done before leaving, so we spent Friday working on the boat and trying to get hold of the weather forecast for the area.
The next day we did a final check of everything – engine, rigging, below deck and so on – and discovered a large crack in one of the plates to which the lower starboard shrouds were attached (the shrouds being the thick steel cables that connect the mast to the boat, keeping it straight). We could have sailed with the crack, but there's no point in risking something that might give way in a storm, potentially taking the mast with it, so we delayed departure until Sunday while the Frères did a quick welding job for us. After a delightful steak and baked potato meal courtesy of Tegan on Saturday night (a thank you to us for spending most of the afternoon trying to fix a leaky exhaust manifold on their engine), Sunday finally came, and we raised anchor and left Rikitea.
However, we didn't leave the Gambiers straight away, but anchored off the southern coast of Mangareva. The reason: Cyclone Kelly had been ripping Fiji to bits over the previous few days, a real shock in the non-cyclone season, and it was slowly heading towards the southeast. Although this wasn't straight for us, if it passed south of us the clockwise cyclonic winds would give us winds from the north or northeast, and seeing as we were planning to head north-northwest, that would mean an unpleasant bash almost straight into the wind; so we weighed anchor to try to get a better reception for the weather forecast broadcast from New Zealand, to see what the future held.
In the meantime, Jan van Gent and Illusion, who had both struck out northwest for Tahiti on Saturday while we were fixing the rigging, limped back into Rikitea, after studying the weather map and deciding that it wasn't worth risking a confrontation with a cyclone, even if it had been reclassified as a tropical depression, a sign that the cyclone was slowly blowing itself out. Despite this worrying development, the winds were still supposed to be coming from the north, so we figured we'd be safe enough on the south side of Mangareva and stayed where we were, deciding to explore the beaches right next to us.
Beaches vary in much the same way gorges in Australia do; you might assume they're all the same, but each beach has its own character, just like cities, deserts, forests and mountains, and the southern Mangarevan beaches were particularly beautiful. Unfortunately the weather was overcast, but even so we explored the area for a while, discovering old walls from a previous settlement, an old shack inhabited by chickens, and some wonderful palm-tree vistas. Returning through the colourful coral, we reckoned that our decision to stay the night just off the south coast was a good one.
Whoops: bad call. During supper the weather began to pick up, with some serious gusts of wind bursting round the corner from the east, and a swell slowly began to build up, sloshing the boat around enough to make us feel a bit uneasy (even though we had the whole anchor chain laid out, so there was no way we were going anywhere). We turned in early, with Rob getting up at 12.30am to get the weather from New Zealand. And that's when he noticed the dinghy.
A cry of 'Quick! Get up Mark, the dinghy's flipped!' woke me up at a quarter to one. The wind was crazy, but mercifully it wasn't raining, so rushing onto deck I had to rely on the waves being blown over the sides to soak me to the skin. The dinghy, which we normally towed behind the boat (except on ocean passages, when it got lashed to the deck) had been blown over by the wind, flipping the oars out into the ocean and immersing the outboard in salt water. This was not a good thing.
It took total immersion from Rob and spiritual guidance and helpful torch lighting from me for us to get the outboard off the flipped dinghy and up onto the deck. We then managed to right the dinghy and hang it off the back of Zeke, only to have it flipped back over by the first wave that hit it, so we shrugged it off and left it to float upside down for the night. Saving the outboard was a higher priority.
When an outboard gets immersed in salt water, it gets water into the cylinder heads, and if you don't flush it out, that's one ruined motor (especially with salt water, a substance that makes concentrated acid look positively innocent). We spent until 3am disassembling, oiling, squirting and drying the outboard before finally turning in, and then we had to take it in turns to check our position every half hour through the night, to make sure we hadn't dragged the anchor towards the surrounding coral reef.
Monday morning saw us battle to drag the upturned dinghy onto the deck in extreme winds – gusts of up to 50 miles per hour – and to pull up the anchor, with me at the helm and Rob at the anchor winch. The relief as we powered into the comparative shelter of Rikitea was huge, not dulled at all by the fact that we were supposed to have left for good. There was Illusion; there was Jan van Gent; and next to them Tegan; it felt like a homecoming, and we counted ourselves lucky to have lost no more than a couple of oars. Boats have been dashed on the reef in better conditions than that, and it drove home the message that sailing is sometimes a dangerous occupation, and people can get into trouble. That evening it was as if all the boats were nursing their wounds... dented pride for Jan van Gent and Illusion, who had had to turn back; engine headaches for Tegan, who had spent days fixing the bloody thing, only to have it still leaking and in need of an overhaul; and Zeke, happy to have fixed the outboard, but smarting from the loss of two oars (and wondering how to cope with only one spare oar on board). Such is the power of the weather.
Quite what a cyclone was doing cropping up in the middle of June, normally a totally cyclone-free month, was anybody's guess. It wasn't terribly sporting, having Kelly spoil our weather pattern, but I suppose I should have been glad that we weren't inside the cyclone itself; that would have been dangerous.
We finally left the Gambiers on Wednesday 18th June, this time for good. We left Rikitea with the sadness reserved for leaving home... over a month in the one area is long enough to build up a pleasant social scene, and I looked back at the slowly disappearing Gambiers with great fondness.