SOUTH SEAS ADVENTURE
By Dave Harper WD5N
Written 23 April, 1994
It all started in late '93 in Galapagos, where I went for the CQWW CW contest. On my last full day on the islands, on a "day trip" to Seymour island, I met JJ. She is an American who is sailing the Pacific for a year or so while on sabbatical from her executive position in the Turner Broadcasting System. Our travel plans coincided the next day to fly back to Quito, Ecuador, and also for the flight the next day to Miami. So we travelled together and got to be friends, and she mentioned that she was looking for people to join her in cruising the South Pacific to help pay expenses. So two months later I did just that! I had 5 weeks of vacation saved up from Texas Instruments, and they kindly allowed me to take all of it. I was to fly to Tahiti to join JJ on the yacht "Scott Free" and after a few weeks of cruising the Society Islands we would sail to Rarotonga in the South Cook Islands, and from there I would fly back to Tahiti for two days until my return flight to the States.
When I actually planned the trip I had only one month to get a French Polynesian ham license. The information I had received from the ARRL said that it takes 3 to 6 months to get the paperwork processed in Papeete. Great. Well, I had nothing to lose so I sent in my application. I knew I could get a license on the spot in Rarotonga when we reached the South Cook islands, and I could always operate some /MM on the boat, so ham radio was definitely going with me. The license application is in French. I had a coworker translate into French a few sentences for me that I added to the application, stating that I would be arriving shortly, and I apologized for the short notice, and hoped that they would please have a license ready for me, thank you very much!
Packing for a month-long trip might be hard enough, but when you add ham and snorkeling gear, it gets pretty cramped! My three allowable bags just weighed too much, so at the last minute I had to throw out a bottle of champagne and a sixpack of Dr. Pepper. Even so, the bags totalled about 170 lbs. Fortunately the yacht had a spare brand new 12V deep cycle battery that I could use, so I was able to leave the power supply at home. I took my TS-690S, which had done a good job on Galapagos, plus a Kansas City Keyer and Bencher paddle. For antennas, I took a trusty zepp dipole with balanced feeders, plus a mobile bug-catcher antenna with a surplus 11' collapsible whip. Also an MFJ transmatch, Heil headset, and assorted "small stuff."
So on February 5 I flew to LA and spent the day with a friend, then the next day flew to Papeete, Tahiti. It was an 8 hour flight on Air France - they feed you pretty good (I kept the menu as a souvenir). Arrival in Papeete was about 9:30 PM (Tahiti is 2 hours behind California), and as we left the plane and entered the terminal there was a small "welcoming party" consisting of one shimmying dancer and three drummers, plus another vahine who put a small flower behind everyone's ear. I was a little concerned about getting my radio gear through customs since I had no local license in hand. But I got waved through customs without anyone looking at my baggage (in fact, customs declined to look at my baggage for the whole trip, including the Cook Islands and the return trip to Tahiti). JJ was waiting for me at the terminal with a beautiful flower lei. There was one other passenger for the boat, Marion, who was on the flight. JJ transported us in a borrowed car to the boat, anchored near the Hotel Sofitel close to the airport.
A little about the yacht: it is a MacGregor 65, a 65' single-mast & jib sailboat, about 12' wide. It was actually designed as a racer, not a cruiser. She has all the modern navigational aids, like an auto-pilot, weatherfax, VHF & HF radios, and a handheld GPS. She has a racing keel with a 9' draft, which is fairly deep, so we had to stay aware of coral heads, etc., whenever we were inside a reef. There is a 135 horsepower diesel to help out when the winds were uncooperative. And there was a small rubber zodiac with an outboard motor for getting to and from the shore. There was a bit of a glitch with the anchoring system: the wildcat (like a sprocket) for raising and lowering the anchor was the wrong size for the chain. So we had to raise and lower the anchor (and 100' of heavy chain) by hand. Usually it took two people to raise it. This became my regular job. Thank goodness for the buckskin gloves I brought with me! Our skipper Bruce was a very experienced sailor, and he was good at explaining things to me (my first time on a sailboat).
All the French Polynesian islands have a transportation system called le Truck, like small buses, that circle the islands at a reasonable cost. But having a car can be nice, too. Dick Johnson, the sport director at the Hotel Sofitel, kindly loaned us his car several times, which we used to run into Papeete for errands, grocery shopping, etc. By the way, there are 130,000 people on Tahiti, with probably 100,000 in the city of Papeete. Not exactly a remote island getaway! You go to the outer islands for that. Most of the mountainous islands in the Society group have a road that goes all the way around the island. We used Dick's car to drive around Tahiti, which took about 4 hours with a few short stops. The French military is omnipresent, as France still conducts nuclear tests in the area. I saw several huge log periodic beams on the east side of the island.
On the second full day in Tahiti, I found the PTT office, and they had my license ready for me! My call was FO0HAR. I figure they only had my application 3 1/2 weeks, so I was quite pleased. That evening I did my first operating from the island, setting up the rig and bugcatcher by the sport hut at the hotel. On the various islands I just set up wherever I was able to for a few hours at a time. A couple of times I was literally "on the beach" with the zepp pulled up as an inverted vee under the tallest coconut palm tree that I could throw a nylon cord over (usually 25-30'). Even though the 12V battery had a carrying handle, it was still pretty heavy, and loading the gear from the boat to the zodiac and back was a bit of a pain. That kept me from operating as much as I would have if I'd been land-based instead of on the boat. I worked almost exclusively CW, mostly 30 & 40 Meters, until the end of the trip when I worked some guys in ARRL's SSB contest. The majority of the QSO's were with Japanese stations. During the daytime, the bands sounded pretty dead, so I mostly got on in the evenings. At that time it was quite late stateside, and I didn't have too much propagation to the States except the west coast. But the JA pileups were pretty consistent. On one of the few times that I operated in the morning, I was sitting on the beach when I was called by my friend James, 9V1YC. He was using an Icom rig I had sold him about 5 years ago. I hadn't talked to him in quite a while - he is always a little too weak when I try to work him from Texas, and the copy is marginal. So we had a nice little chat, until the tap on the antenna coil became intermittent (I was using the bugcatcher antenna) and the SWR pegged the meter. It took me a few minutes to figure out what the problem was and by then he was gone.
We spent 3 days at Tahiti, 3 at Moorea, 2 at Huahine, 1 at Raiatea, and 6 days at Bora Bora. Then we sailed about 500 miles in 5 days to Rarotonga, where we stayed 5 days. Then flew back to Tahiti for 2 days, staying in a hotel, before returning to LA. Each of the Society islands is about 20-30 miles from the next, so it only took a few hours to get from one to the next.
France does not have a third party traffic agreement with the USA, so we couldn't send messages or do phone patches with the States when we were at the various islands. But whenever we were outside the reef I could sign WD5N/MM and do patches. So several times when we were enroute from one isle to the next we ran some patches for the others on the boat back to California. Because this is not the sailing season in the South Pacific, we were often the only /MM checkin on the 14313 Pacific net at 0400Z. For the patches we mostly used the marine SSB radio, which used the backstay for an antenna through an automatic antenna coupler in the back of the boat. It was just too crowded to set up my rig in the boat, and there was enough other stuff going on that I didn't feel a need to do any other /MM operating.
I had gotten certified for Scuba diving before I left on the trip (which included 2 days of diving in Lake Travis, with a balmy 54 degree water temp!), because the boat had tanks and a compressor, but unfortunately we only got to go diving twice (at Bora Bora). But Marion & I did snorkel quite a lot on the various islands, and that was very enjoyable. I saw black-tip sharks on three occasions, ranging from a 4-footer to a 6-footer. The closest one got was about 6 feet away. I knew they were not dangerous if you keep your cool, and I was hoping to see more. Some of the hotels and dive shops on the islands offer diving tours. On some of the tours the guide gets the group all settled down on the bottom, then pulls out some rotten fish and here come the sharks! As many as 30 or more sharks go into a feeding frenzy, and I heard some tourists mention what an incredible experience it was to see. I never had the time to go on one of these tours, but maybe next time.
On Bora Bora we went on a 4-wheel-drive tour. There were eight of us in the back of a jeep with a local guide. We spent about 5 hours circling the island, and went up 5 or 6 steep trails up into the hills for various views. At one time we looked down over the abandoned Hyatt hotel. It was 90% complete a few years ago when cost overruns and mismanagement caused the company to try to cut their losses and give up on it. Now the jungle has taken it over. On another hilltop we saw a big gun left by the Americans in World War II. The USA had a shipping port on Bora Bora, and did a lot of development on the island, including constructing the first road around the island. There are several of these big guns in the hills, which were to protect against a Japanese attack by sea. However, the Japanese never made it that far south in the Pacific.
All the islands have "Island Night" several times a week at the various hotels, combining a buffet feast cooked island-style in underground ovens, followed by traditional Polynesian dancing and music. The buffet cost $30-40, so we would just show up and buy a drink at the bar when it was time for the dancing to start. There are some slower dances with story-telling hand movements, but most of the dances are pretty fast with amazing hip-shakin'! The climax of the show we saw on Bora Bora was three guys twirling fire batons.
After Bora Bora, we sailed for about 5 days to get to Rarotonga in the South Cook Islands. We passed Maupiti island right after Bora Bora. We would have stayed there for a day, as it is one of the least spoiled of the Society Islands, but it has a very narrow pass through the reef and the winds and seas were not conducive to entering when we got there, so we just waved at the isle and passed on by. The swells were about 5 to 6 feet for most of the sailing to Rarotonga, and the wind was at a bad angle, so it was a bit of a rough trip. This was the rainy season (and hurricane season) in that part of the Pacific, so there are very few people out sailing like we were. In fact, when we got to Rarotonga at the first of March, we were the first yacht to arrive there this year.
We pulled into the harbor at dawn on Sunday morning. Now, I had read in my travel books that everything is closed down on Sunday in the Cooks. It was true. We called the harbormaster's office on the radio, and eventually (in the afternoon when church was over) someone answered us and told us to just sit tight until the next day. Then on Monday it was mid-afternoon before the health inspector came to spray down the boat, then the customs fellow came on board to check our paperwork and clear us. By the time we finally got ashore, all the banks were closed so we didn't have any way to change money and we couldn't really do much. Two days wasted waiting for "island time" to catch up with us! Speaking of money, some of the Cook currency is worth collecting. There is a $3 bill with a naked goddess riding a shark on one side, and the god Tangaroa on the other. Tangaroa is the main god of the Polynesians and can be seen on woodcarvings, T-shirts, paintings, etc. He is anatomically correct and very well endowed. He is also on the $1 coin, with Queen Elizabeth on the other side. I understand she wasn't too thrilled with that combination. The most important thing though about money here is that it goes much further than in French Polynesia! The Cooks are affiliated with New Zealand, and the exchange rate is much better.
We had to spend a whole day preparing the boat for the thousand mile trip to Tonga. Since I was being dropped off on Rarotonga and wasn't going to be aboard for the Tonga journey, I would have rather spent my time looking around the island, but I was a nice guy and helped out. We had to fill up with fuel and water, wash down the boat, dry out everything that had gotten soaked when the rough seas washed into our open hatches (towels, cushions, etc. are very difficult to dry when they get wet with salt water). Then we had a day to rent a car and drive around the island. I had to get a local drivers license to drive a rent car. It was my first time to drive on the "wrong" side of the road, and I managed to not have a wreck so I guess I did okay. It only takes about an hour to drive around Rarotonga, but we stopped a few times, including a couple of hours of swimming and relaxing on Muri Beach. The reef is very close to shore on this island, ranging from 100 yards to maybe 1/8 mile. It had been raining a lot, so the water inside the reef was pretty murky and the snorkeling wasn't too good.
On our second day ashore I went to the Telecom office and was issued my Cook ham license, ZK1NAR. I actually could have gotten ZK1HAR to match my FO0HAR callsign, but the main guy wasn't there, just a clerk who didn't know too much, and she thought it needed to start with an "N". I found out later that this actually means it is a Novice callsign, hah! But nobody really cares. So now that I had a license, the evening we had the rent car I took the rig and bugcatcher antenna ashore and hooked it up to the car battery to operate for a few hours. Fortunately it was late enough in the evening that the kids who used the harbor for a swimming hole had gone home. There is only a single ladder up to the wharf which we had to use to climb ashore from the zodiac. But this is also where the neighborhood kids come to swim, using the ladder to climb in and out. The little urchins delighted in jumping into the water, trying to splash us (and doing a good job), whenever we came or went.
On our second night, skipper Bruce was awakened around 3 AM by someone climbing onto the back of the boat. He looked out the doorway and saw a frogman, with all black wetsuit and hood, climbing up the transom. While Bruce was trying to figure out what to use for a club or weapon, he saw the guy pull out a knife and grab the line to our American flag. Bruce yelled at the guy, who quickly cut down our flag and dove into the water with it. There was another guy in the water, and they both took off underwater. Bruce mentioned this to the harbormaster the next day and was overheard by the commander of an Australian warship that had arrived the day after us. Later that commander told Bruce that our flag was found on the deck of his ship, and he returned it to us and apologized. He had told Bruce he'd give us an Aussie flag, too, but he didn't. We figure one of the Aussie sailors had issued a dare to another, or some such nonsense. They had had a party that night and were probably pretty sauced. They were just lucky Bruce didn't have a weapon nearby!
One night we hitched a ride to one of the hotels that was having an island night, and we watched another dance show. This one was even faster and higher energy than the Bora Bora show. They highlighted the different drummers and dancers. It was very enjoyable.
Earlier in the voyage I had met Arnold, ZK1DB, on the air on 20M SSB. He participates in the maritime mobile net on 14313, and daily transmits Pacific weather information to the boats. I needed to stay one night on the island while the boat took off for Tonga, before I flew back to Tahiti. Arnold insisted that I stay with him, so just before sundown we lugged my bags ashore and I bid adieu to my sailing companions. I had checked with the customs people as instructed, and fortunately they decided not to come down to the harbor to check my bags, so that hassle was avoided.
We dropped off my bags at Arnold's place, and drove to his daughter's home for dinner, then back to his place. I got to take my first "real" shower in weeks! (On the boat we had a sunshower, or else we'd wash in the ocean and then pour a half gallon of fresh water over ourselves to rinse). Afterwards, Arnold told me some neat stories, including the one about how all the island's government buildings had been burned by an arsonist a year or two before, and how the fire probably would have stopped with the first building except for a pair of curtains in another building that Arnold's wife had made for him when he worked there...but that is another story! Since all my gear was packed away, Arnold dug out his old Vibroplex bug and I spent a few hours operating his rig. He has a TS-450S, which was fine, but no CW filters. That definitely made the pileups more challenging. I worked the usual JA crowd, and on 30M there was a polar opening and a few watery Europeans made it into the log. Arnold has a triband quad, but I only used his dipole because it was late in the evening and the higher bands were all closed. About 11 PM Arnold had to go to the airport to meet a group of American hams who were arriving. They were going to do a multi-multi operation for the ARRL SSB contest the next day. I could have gone with him to meet them, but it was my only chance to operate his station, so I stayed at the shack.
Early the next morning Arnold took me to the airport for my flight back to Tahiti on Polynesian Airlines. As it turned out, I was the only passenger on that flight. I'm glad they didn't cancel it, as there is only one flight a week from Rarotonga to Tahiti. After landing in Tahiti, it was a chore to get my heavy bags out to the road to catch le Truck, and then to the hotel lobby after being dropped off. I had reservations at the Hotel Tahiti, which years ago was the premier hotel on the island, but it has seen better days. I had one of the cheapest rooms ($80 a night), in the oldest section right next to the road.
The manager said it would be okay to operate from the room, but now I had to locate a 12V source for my rig, since I no longer had the spare battery from the boat to use. The manager didn't know anyone who had a spare battery, but he suggested trying an Exxon service station about a quarter mile down the road. I did so, and the only used battery they had that showed any sort of charge at all was a huge truck battery that must have weighed about 100 lbs. I offered to rent it for a day and a half, but the fellow said I could just borrow it. Then he kind of jokingly asked me how he could trust me to bring it back. I laughed and said there was no way I was taking this battery on my flight to the States! Fortunately I had carried my K-Mart dolly with me, and I lugged it back to the hotel. It was so heavy it bent the aluminum arms on my dolly, which will no longer collapse to its smallest size (when I returned the battery I used a big wooden luggage dolly from the hotel).
Once I had the battery in my room, I attached a 1-amp battery charger that I had brought (along with a 220V converter, as French Polynesia is on 220V 50hz), and left it on continously. While I was getting set up, I tuned around the 10M band with an AEA DX Handy that I had brought. It is a handheld QRP SSB/CW 10M rig with a 4' loaded whip. Previous to this point, every time I had tuned around on 10 meters the band had been dead. But now I was hearing a few stateside guys with it. Of course, the ARRL contest was due to start in an hour or so. Isn't it a coincidence how 10M seems to open up just for the contests? However, I was too busy trying to get set up and put up an antenna, so I didn't try to work anyone with the little rig. I took my zepp out the back door to the courtyard, and threw a rock over a palm tree to pull the antenna up like an inverted vee, tying off the ends to other palm trees. This is pretty much the same technique I used on a couple of the islands where I used this antenna instead of the bugcatcher. The bugcatcher antenna is a bit easier to set up, provided there is a pipe, railing, lawnchair, etc. Available to clamp it on to. But it is harder to change bands, requiring a coil tap change, plus I was using the smaller size bugcatcher coil, so the antenna would not tune 80M. The zepp I had cut for 40M to make it easier to install than a full 130' long dipole, but with the tuned feeders and the MFJ tuner, it tuned all bands including 80 just fine.
In the contest I got a few runs going on 10, and then on 15 when 10 closed to the states, but when 15 closed I was pretty much out of luck. I just could not seem to be heard very well on 20 or 40, and forget 75. So I just worked some more CW when the higher bands closed. I ended up making about 180 contest contacts. Since I was leaving early Sunday I was only able to operate the first half of the contest. My QSO totals for the entire trip were about 1200 contacts from French Polynesia, and about 350 from Rarotonga, South Cook.
The next day, Saturday, I had planned to head into Papeete (the hotel was a couple of miles from town) and look around and shop, but I found out when I got there that all the shops were closed because it was a national holiday, the 197th anniversary of the day the missionaries landed. Fortunately there was one marketplace that was still open, so I bought a few pareus (a cloth that is wrapped around oneself like a skirt, etc. There are many ways to wear one in the traditional styles), and a few odds and ends. I decided to walk back to the hotel instead of taking le Truck, and stopped at a small stadium where the church parishes were all gathered for festivities. The different parishes were re-enacting historical events, with songs and props, although it was all done in Tahitian so I couldn't understand too much. It had started raining, so I took cover under a small awning. Usually these squalls only last a few minutes, but this time it rained and rained, and kept raining. Finally I remembered that in my backpack I had a new rain poncho that I had never used, so I got it out and finished walking to the hotel. The bands were a bit noisy as the rain made static on the ladder-line feeders, but I worked some more guys until the evening.
The rain quit in late afternoon, and just before sunset I was treated to the finest looking rainbow I'd ever seen. It stretched from horizon to horizon and was very bright, with a second partial rainbow above it, and it stayed in this bright state for at least a half hour until the sun went down. A little later I took le Truck to the Beachcomber hotel a couple of miles away where they were having island night festivities, and saw my third dancing show of the trip. This one was a large group, and quite good. A highlight was when they featured two young girls, I'd guess about 9 years old, doing the fast dancing. One of them appeared to be non-native (light hair and skin, and blue eyes) and she was pretty good. But the other little girl, a Tahitian, was simply amazing. She had the fastest hip shaking I'd ever seen, and was as cute as could be. She will be a heartbreaker for sure.
Then it was back to the hotel for a little bit more operating, then I had to pack up for the early morning flight. I finished up on 30M working a nice pileup of Japanese stations, and decided to leave the rig on while I packed up my clothes and other items, leaving the station until last. As I was packing, I heard the fringes of another JA pileup, so I went to the rig and dialed around until I heard T33CC working split. After a moment I located the JA he was working about 10 khz up, and snagged him with one call, so that was the last contact in my log. Then I packed up the rig, lowered the dipole in the dark and rolled it up, and at 1 AM I lugged the battery back to the service station I had borrowed it from.
The next morning I checked out and called a cab. Taxis are very expensive but le Truck doesn't go all the way to the airport terminal and I didn't want to have to lug my gear there from the road, plus the airport was only a couple miles from the hotel, so I splurged. The taxis are individually owned and this one was a Mercedes. At the airport I snagged a final expensive Coke ($2.70), and away I went. The couple next to me on the plane back to the states were from El Paso, and had two daughters going to school in Austin. Small world.
We landed in LA at about 8:30 PM and my sister from LA picked me up and I spent the night at their home in Laguna Hills. Then the next morning she returned me to the airport and I flew to Santa Cruz to visit Trey, WN4KKN. I spent one day with Trey, and got my first view of the giant redwoods. We had dinner in Los Gatos with Bob, N6TV, and Dick, AA6MC. The next morning Trey drove me around the coastline, then back to the airport to return to LA, then back to Austin. End of trip. Sigh.
I shot 3 rolls of print film and 5 rolls of slides. Next time I will take along a disposable panorama camera, as some of the landscape views would have made some great panoramic shots. Most of the pix came out quite well, only a few blurred ones. I experimented by using my Blueblocker clip-on sunglasses as a filter in front of the camera lens on some shots. On landscapes it didn't turn out too good, but it made sunsets look very exotic.
People ask me what I missed the most. Well, even on these islands the Western influences are very evident, as you could get burgers and fries and pizza. Mostly I missed Dr. Pepper. They had Coke, Sprite, Fanta, and sometimes Pepsi. Everything in French Polynesia is very expensive. There is one soda machine in Papeete where cokes are $1, but usually in the stores and burger stands they were $1.50, and more in the restaurants. The expensive hotels had rooms over the water costing up to $900 a night (!). Fortunately, we had the boat to stay on, and we went grocery shopping several times and cooked most of our meals. Even the grocery stores were expensive - it cost around $400 for two grocery baskets of food. The various crafts and souvenirs were mostly expensive too, except for a few cheap items that looked like cheap items. But T-shirts and the pareus were reasonable, $12-15. By comparison, the Cook Islands were much less expensive. According to my travel books, the Cooks are the most reasonably priced islands in the Pacific for the budgetminded traveller.
Oh yeah, I missed my favorite TV shows just a wee bit, but I had taped Saturday Night Live, and Darrell, WD5CDY, loaned me his tapes of Star Trek that I missed.
Would I do it again? Heck, yes. Well, I'd probably go somewhere I had not seen yet, like Fiji or Tonga or the Samoas. But then I've never been to the Caribbean yet and it's much less expensive to get to, so maybe that will be next. First I need to save up some more vacation time and money! Since I got back, I've been playing the lotto more than I used to - a million bucks could keep me in paradise for quite a while.