Mangareva (the Gambiers): A Primer
In French Polynesia are 5 archipelagos. One archipelago, the Easternmost, is called the Gambier Islands. The only island of the Gambiers with a pass to enter for cruising boats is Mangareva. Thus, Mangareva is the name of a single atoll in the Gambiers but is synonymous in cruisers’ talk with the Gambiers.
Like many atolls, there are small islets called motus on Mangareva’s encircling reef. Mangarevas reef is mostly open to the ocean on the entire Southern side of the atoll with another large pass on the West making for little current inside of the atoll or in the main pass. Depending on the direction of the swell you may get incoming or outgoing currents in the false passes but not in the large navigable passes.
What makes Mangareva unique is that inside of Mangareva encircling reef are a number of small islands – not one large island in the middle like you might find in the Society Islands (another archipelago) in French Polynesia. This means that within an 8-10 mile sail (often much shorter) you can be in a different anchorage on a different island or motu. Gunkholing paradise!
While book writers disagree on the subject, most Frenchies and Mangarevans consider Mangareva to be outside of the hurricane zone and along with the Marquesas are a common spot for European boats to cruise through the hurricane season. We are the only N American boat here this austral summer and most of the European boats are either staying here for the entire hurricane season or splitting their time between here and the Marquesas.
Most N American boats visit during the austral winter, arriving usually from the Galapagos, which is also the time of the worst weather in the Gambiers. It’s storm season here then, and the low pressure systems from the Southern Ocean whip up the seas and the winds when they pass through. Reportedly, the weather is often squally and less sunny and pleasant than the summer average. The good news is that when it is squally here, as mentioned above, there are a lot of anchorages, in close proximity, to switch between to gain protection from various wind/fetch directions.
The main island with “the village” is Rikitea. In Mangareva, like many remote spots in French Polynesia, there is only one village and it quickly becomes THE village to those living in, or hanging out in the atoll. We have visited many of the outer islands and many of the motus and are planning on working our way through the rest.
The only downside to Mangareva so far for us is that most of the anchorages are deep – 40 to 60 feet. While we have anchored in shallower water here, we are usually cranking like crazy people on our manual windlass to raise an enormous amount of 5/16” HT chain and our hefty Manson Supreme. We have started using a single pearl farm buoy at 2-to-1 before dropping the rest of the scope to help with the weight of the chain.
While there are pearl farm buoys to avoid when navigating, I think that this danger has been overemphasized in some of the passed-around-information. The pearl farmers aren’t interested in losing their expensive equipment (and pearls!) anymore than you are in having a line around your prop and we have found large thoroughfares left throughout the atoll for local boats (and subsequently for cruising boats).
Supply ships come regularly but not on any particular schedule and there are at least 5 small grocery stores that we know of that each offer their own selection and each have different arrangements with the supply ships. The offering is similar to the Tuamotus with perhaps even fewer vegetables on offer. Thankfully there are a lot of opportunities to exchange or be gifted fruit and vegetables.
LEAVE A CLEAN WAKE: Even more so than other areas in French Polynesia, it is important to ask permission here and tread lightly. The locals have seen a dramatic increase in boat traffic in the last 10 years and while they would like to be welcoming, the pressures we put on the local community when people arrive en masse with their bags and bags of trash from passage (for example) can be heavy. Also, while the law dictates that below the high tide line is public land in French Polynesia, there are people here who prefer if you ask permission before you anchor in front of their family motu/island/piece of land. This is not true in the village but ask around with some local cruisers before you explore the outer islands. And, as always, if you see people ashore, go and introduce yourselves – even if you have to use sign language or a phrase book.