The Gambier archipelago enchants solo cruiser Charlotte Guillemot and photographer Julien Girardot

I didn’t expect to see it. I was on watch, on my 23rd day at sea, when the island of Mangareva appeared in the distance in front of my bow. I looked up, white sea birds were whistling as they swirled around my mast. They were singing the end of my first solo crossing.

It had begun with a promise I’d made to myself: to reach French Polynesia on my own yacht. I discovered much more than the end of a challenge when I arrived in Gambier after 23 days of solo sailing. The archipelago cultivates the black pearl, the jewel of its lagoon, but it’s far from being the only treasure as these generous islands and their inhabitants charm and bewitch their visitors. The Gambier Islands are a hidden paradise.

It had been two years since I pledged that I’d come back to French Polynesia on my own boat, having fallen in love with the islands. Behind me lie the Galapagos, the Panama Canal, Cuba and Martinique, the start of my sailing adventure.

But before that there were many decisions, and sometimes doubts too. I had to choose a boat that would fit my size, not too big to be able to manoeuvre alone, but not too small that I wouldn’t feel safe. It had to be relatively new, and well maintained. From all these demands and compromises I chose a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 35, a production boat that came out of the yard less than 10 years ago. I renamed her Te Reva Tua, which means ‘I’m off to sea’ in Tahitian.

Te Reva Tua at anchor in Gambier.

For a year I spent all my free time preparing Te Reva Tua for offshore sailing, optimising her for solo sailing and reinforcing my knowledge of electronics and mechanics. And then I sailed to get used to her handling. I only knew the basics of sailing – as a yachting journalist, I knew my subject in theory but it was necessary to move on to practice.

Accompanied by two crewmembers to begin with, we danced to Cuban music, at Christmas we spearfished for our meals in the clear waters of the San Blas, and at anchor in the Galapagos a sea lion invited itself on board in our absence.

Commitments called my friends back to France but the magic of these stopovers made me want to continue alone, so I set course for French Polynesia, 2,900 miles away. It was a number that, I must admit, left me a little dizzy – so much so that, until more than halfway into the crossing, I didn’t allow myself to count the number of miles left. The arrival point seemed so far away. Only the distance covered over 24 hours counted for me.

Keeping a lookout from the bow

But along the way I became more confident. I established a routine with my hourly watches, receiving and analysing weather files, checking the rigging. At no time did I find the time dragged, except perhaps during the two days of doldrums I encountered. I still had a few scares: the night of a knockdown during a sudden squall while I was sleeping, or when Ecuadorian fishermen came to meet me and didn’t let me sail on when they realised I was alone on board; I slipped away under cover of night.

So when I spotted a mountain on the horizon I exploded with joy, pride at the fulfilment of a personal challenge to be back in French Polynesia at the helm of my own boat, and sheer happiness at being back in these distant lands. Mangareva here I come!

Black pearl archipelago

The Gambier archipelago is a condensed version of French Polynesia, a coral reef that stretches over 90km and protects islets, sandbanks and five large mountainous islands topped with pine trees. Some 800 miles south-east of Tahiti, dotted across 35km2 of land, just 1,500 people live here, most of them in the village of Rikitea on the island of Mangareva.

It’s an exceptional playground for cruisers who set out to discover the calm waters of the lagoon. But navigating the area requires full attention. There are sandy shoals, coral reefs, and you need to remain vigilant because not all dangers are marked – charts are incomplete in some places – and the lagoon is criss-crossed with traps.

Pilotage around the pearl farms requires careful attention at all time

Seen from the sky it is punctuated by thousands of coloured buoys. These are the maritime concessions of pearl farms that cultivate the Pinctada margaritifera, or black-lipped oyster. This shellfish, more commonly known as mother-of-pearl, produces the treasure of the archipelago: the black pearl. Rare and precious, few visitors stop over in the Gambier Islands and manage to leave without wearing one. More than a souvenir, it is a symbol of travel, of the sea and of the islands.

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In order for the oysters to grow in the best conditions, they are suspended in bags on long lines immersed between 2-5m deep, sometimes shallower. These are a real trap for keelboats, and lines becoming ensnarled with a yacht are a nightmare for the pearl farmers.

Eric Sichoix regularly welcomes sailors who are curious to learn more about oyster farming. He is always happy to take the time to show them around his farm located in the east of the archipelago on the motu Tarauru Roa, a white sand bank on the coral reef. It is a magical and wild place between the tumultuous waters of the open sea and the calm of the lagoon. The anchorage in front of the farm is heavenly, and we drop anchor between two coral heads near a ‘false pass’, a shallow channel that connects the lagoon to the ocean.

Colourful luminescence of the black pearls

An incredible diversity of multicoloured fish come to life as we drop the hook, a school of blue parrots dividing to let a small leopard ray pass. Two curious and fast jacks circling around the chain spin away and dive towards the depths, while a black tip reef shark passes peacefully and seemingly indifferent to this whirl of activity.

On land, it is equally busy. Divers, grafters, handlers – in all 15 people work for Eric, maintaining pearl production all year long. The success of a beautiful pearl depends on its grafting: a symbiosis between the magic of nature and the knowledge of man. It’s a meticulous surgical procedure during which two foreign bodies are introduced into the pearl pocket of the oyster: a nucleus, a perfect ball made of a calcareous shell; and a graft, a piece of the mantle of a donor oyster. After 14 months, the oyster has secreted layers of smooth nacre around the nucleus, and the pearl is ready to be harvested.

Round, semi-round, or circular, in an infinite number of shades and reflections of grey, green, yellow, or aubergine, each pearl has a unique beauty. The tropical archipelago located at 23°S gives oysters the ideal environment adapted to their needs: healthy, temperate water rich in plankton and mineral salts.

Dingy fun for cruising kids

Traditional welcome

Facing Mangareva is the island of Aukena. Here live Bernard and Marie-Noëlle in the middle of their lime plantation. They have chosen to live away from the village, searching for a more authentic and tranquil way of life. Bernard owns more than half of the island (1.3km2), he lives from his vegetable garden, his fruit trees and raises goats and pigs. The day I arrive, four sailing yachts have dropped anchor in front of their beautiful beach of fine sand.

The crews come ashore to share dinner on a large wooden table that borders the shore. Marie-Noëlle has been cooking since the morning, making a feast of local dishes that will accompany the meat already on the barbecue: papaya gratin, coconut bread and banana poe for dessert (a sweet mix of banana, starch and coconut milk). “I take pleasure and pride in introducing our dishes, our culture, our little paradise to the sailboats that stop over, the welcome has always been part of our tradition,” she explains.

Music by moonlight on Taravai island

A simple life

Bernard shares a Hinano, the local beer, with us and recommends the most beautiful anchorages around his island. But soon the conversation shifts to song, following the rhythm of seafarers and musicians from different boats. The atmosphere is friendly and festive.

A child uses Bernard’s traps to try to capture a wild rooster. “It’s this simplicity of life that we came to find,” explains their mother Elena, who has sailed with her husband, Thierry, and three children from France on Pandora, a 50ft 1988 aluminium sloop. “I’m happy that my children are having these experiences that open them to the world. Yesterday they went to feed the pigs and helped to weed the land with a machete. They are curious about everything – especially when it happens away from their school books!”

Pearl buoy lines are usually just a few metres underwater, making them an easy trap for keelboats.

We sail on to explore the large mountainous island of Taravai, where the national sport is volleyball. Hervé and Valerie, who have only four neighbours, are delighted to have visitors arrive so we can play in teams on their tropical court at the edge of shoreline.

The approach to the island is not easy: there are no marks to indicate the pass and the cartography is imprecise. But Hervé was watching over the VHF on Ch77 and offered some advice to guide Te Reva Tua into the anchorage safely.

One morning he takes me spearfishing. “In Polynesia we hunt early because the sharks leave us alone, they are dozing and digesting their night’s hunting. If we wait too late, they get hungry and throw themselves on our arrowed fish,” he explains.

Valerie is an artist and with great precision creates paintings from the multicoloured sand of Taravai. Her works are exported all over the world. One of her most recent commissions is a portrait of the famous sailor Eric Tabarly, who sailed through the Marquesas, Tuamotu, Gambier and Austral archipelagos on Pen Duick VI in 1977.

Harvesting the pearl oysters.

These stopovers at the end of the world are always filled with unusual encounters. Back in Rikitea, we meet Tuti – a character with boundless enthusiasm and energy. He was sailing from Tahiti to his home of Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua, but he and his two crew were forced to stop in Gambier to repair sails torn during a gale. “We will be the first Pasquans to come by sea to our island! It has never been done since our ancestors,” he explains.

The trio intend to offer tourist outings around their island – an ambitious plan when you know that there is not a single sheltered harbour on the island of the Moai, the megalithic heads Easter Island is most famous for, 1,400 miles east of Gambier. On land, we organise ourselves to help our new friends, unfolding their sails in the sports hall. Brian and Katleen, a Canadian couple, bring out their sewing machine and tackle the mainsail. Between my French, the Spanish-speaking Pasquans and the Canadians’ English we have a little difficulty in communicating but our energy brings us together.

Guillemot’s Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 35 Te Reva Tua lies alone on the stunning anchorage facing the reef of Akamaru island

Essential supplies

Down at the waterfront, the Taporo VIII docks, it is one of the two cargo ships that supply the archipelago every three weeks. Although today the engine has replaced sails, it is still the rotations of the ships that give rhythm to the life of the islanders. Food, construction materials, rainwater tanks, pearl farm equipment, gas, scooters – everything comes from Tahiti. Around 100 people line the dock waiting for the containers to open.

On ship days, people don’t work, they come to pick up their orders placed weeks before. Grocery stores have closed, and trucks and forklifts circulate in all directions. There is never as much activity as on a cargo ship day.

Eric Sichoix is collecting bags of new buoys on board his boat while Bernard is loading 200kg of lemons for a supermarket in Tahiti. In the shade, Tuti’s crew and others are waiting for the delivery of a 200lt barrel of diesel that they will share. At the end of the day, from my boat, I watch the seamen casting off the heavy hawsers before departing for Tahiti. Rikitea reclaims its languid calm. Soon it will be my turn to set sail again; Polynesia stretches over a territory as big as Europe, so there will be many more people and places to encounter.

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