Author’s note: I first started to write this story at the request of one of my Marquesan friends who hoped to make the cruising community more aware of the issues I outline here. But I want to make it clear that I do not think the problem is very widespread. In general I think voyagers are responsible and respectful of the places we visit, but it only takes one or two instances of disrespect on the part of sailors for local attitudes to change.
You’ll find the stuff of dreams at Hanamoenoa. The golden sand of its beach is so fine that your feet sink deep into the warm, soft grains. The turquoise water is so clear that you can see your boat’s shadow on the bottom thirty feet down. The patches of coral teem with brightly colored reef fish. Manta rays glide gracefully around the bay, scooping up krill in their wide filter mouths. Wooded hills rise gently from the beach, giving protection from the strong easterly trade winds to leave the bay tranquil and calm.
Hanamoenoa Bay, in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, is the kind of place sailors fantasize about. It’s the kind of place that keeps up morale on the long ocean passage that’s required to reach these tropic isles. And it’s the kind of place that, once you find it actually exists, brings out first awe and then exuberant excitement.
Most cruisers who reach the Marquesas have heard the fables. We’ve all heard of the abundant tropical fruit, seemingly growing wild in these verdant, fertile islands. We’ve heard of the sailors before us being showered in hospitality, being loaded down with fruit and fish, welcomed almost as if they were family. Some of us have even received that hospitality ourselves on earlier voyages, many years ago. We’ve heard of, or experienced on earlier voyages, the empty anchorages where it’s just us and the wilderness, the untouched reefs alive with all kinds of fish to spear and eat.
Today just fables
Unfortunately, these tales, while they were mostly true at one time, are today just that: fables. Even before the pandemic, the locals in the South Pacific were becoming overwhelmed by the increasing number of cruisers, especially in French Polynesia where even non-European sailors could (before the pandemic) stay up to three years with the right paperwork, whereas we used to be given only three months. French Polynesia is essentially facing a problem of over-tourism of yachts, which has led to a whole range of problems between cruisers and locals. My own anecdotal experience has shown me that these fables are one contributor to the problems. Enough sailors believe the fables, and even believe they are entitled to the same experiences, so troubles are bound to arise.
There are exceptions, of course, like in anything. I’ve been the recipient of great acts of generosity, even as recently as last year, and certainly throughout my first voyage to the South Pacific more than 13 years ago. But it’s important not to expect that. It’s important to realize that this is no longer the norm, because believing otherwise is threatening to create unpleasant situations for everyone.
Take, for example, the no-anchoring policy that now exists in Bora Bora, an island that used to be the crown jewel of Polynesia but has suffered from too much traffic. Similar anchoring restrictions quickly followed in Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands. The Cook Islands, to the west of Tahiti, charge hefty daily anchoring fees, which vary by island. (The Cooks are currently closed entirely due to the pandemic.) Hawaii, wishing to avoid derelict boats either left to rot or with liveaboards who do not maintain their boats to a reasonable standard, has a 72-hour anchoring policy, and marina slips are hard to come by, the combination of which makes the archipelago difficult to cruise.
Even in places where anchoring remains free and unrestricted, cruisers increasingly find locals to be less than welcoming. On the mild end of the spectrum, I’ve noticed exorbitant prices in the most frequented parts of the Marquesas for ubiquitous goods like limes and bananas. In the port of entry of Atuona, I heard $30 quoted for a small bunch of bananas while rats ate the bananas rotting on the trees. On the extreme end, rumors were swirling in 2019 about locals in Ra’iatea (one of the islands between Tahiti and Bora Bora) cutting sailors’ anchor chains while they were asleep or ashore.
From the cruiser’s perspective, it feels horrible. Sailors who started out with beautiful dreams of self-reliant freedom, gorgeous landfalls, and happy experiences meeting new people, are hurt by feeling unwanted and are disappointed to find the freedom of sailing over the horizon isn’t unrestrained after all. It’s hard to understand at first: you’ve come with the best intentions.
The greatest change is simply that there are more boats. Even a dozen years ago, a fraction of the number of boats that now visit French Polynesia did so. There are all kinds of reasons why this is so: the cheaper prices of used boats following the 2008 financial crisis; bigger and more comfortable boats with many of the conveniences of home; the affordability and ease of use of today’s navigation, communication, and other technologies; increasingly flexible remote working arrangements; new fables of the sailing life marketed by sailing YouTube channels; changes in French Polynesia’s long-stay visa program; and increased development within the islands.
More people interested in sailing and able to realize their dreams is not at all a bad thing. But unfortunately, in aggregate, it also puts more pressure on the islands and the locals. While cruisers come with the best intentions, it’s impossible for hundreds of cruisers not to have an impact.
Trouble with cruisers
In the Marquesas over the last three years, I have gotten to know a number of the local residents quite well. All of them were generous and kind beyond measure, but a few of them noted that they’d occasionally had trouble with cruisers. Their primary concerns were with stealing fruit, spear-fishing too many fish from the reef, and – in one instance – a big crowd disturbing the quiet peace of the beach and bay. Of course, most sailors do not mean to steal, over-fish, or disturb anything or anyone. They’ve just heard the fables that when they get to the Marquesas there will be fruit everywhere, the wild produce of the land.
Most of it, however, is not wild. One Marquesan man showed me all around his garden, showing where he’d planted new trees and was nurturing them along. He told me about a group of sailors who had picked all of his pamplemousse (grapefruit) when he was gone one day, leaving him with nothing for several weeks. He told me of sailors trampling his new saplings when they tried to hike up the valley from the beach. The hikers also scared away the wild boar and goats he hunted, so he had to hike further afield for his meat, leaving his orchard and garden unprotected. This orchard might not look like a New England apple orchard: it isn’t ordered in tidy rows; the fruit trees are in among the natural vegetation, so that at first glance they do appear to be growing wild. But if one looks a little closer, there’s evidence of a gardener’s care, of someone watering the plants when all is dry, of weeding around the new saplings.
I’ve heard similar complaints about sailors spear-fishing, which is increasingly popular, especially among young cruisers who’ve watched YouTube sailing channels before embarking. But if every spear-fisherman takes a fish for dinner every night, the reef can’t support it and the locals’ food resource is gone.
When we approach our voyages responsibly, realizing that it’s a great gift to be able to do it at all, our perspective changes. No longer are we upset that we do not have the South Pacific idyll of Hanamoenoa Bay to ourselves; instead we are grateful to be there in the first place, surrounded by such beauty. We can be generous ourselves, giving or trading extra line, snorkel gear, or other items in remote places where goods are hard to come by.
Accept the change
The ocean sailors of today have to be patient and phlegmatic not about those things, but about the issues caused by increased levels of world travel. However, there are still many, many friendly people out there who are eager to befriend someone who makes an effort. You might get a huge bag of fruit when you say goodbye.
And there are still many, many beautiful wild places in the world where a sailor can drop the hook, watch for the sunset’s green flash, and marvel that he’s there, where he’d dreamed of being.
Contributing editor Ellen Massey Leonard is a circumnavigator, writer and photographer with more than 60,000 ocean miles.