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Sunday, 14 July 2019

The Tuamotus

The Tuamotus

The Tuamotus archipelago is made up of 77 atolls - narrow coral rings encircling turquoise lagoons. Each atoll is a slice of paradise with coral beaches, blue lagoons and idyllic motu (coral islets). They are a haven for scuba divers and snorkelers alike. 

Google Earth image of some of the atolls

Early Tuamotu history is a mystery. Some believe that the Paumotu (people of the Tuamotus) fled from the Leeward and Marquesas Islands following conflicts in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Others believe the atolls were populated at the same time as the major Polynesian migration of many people from the Marquesas to the Gambier Archipelago and Easter Island in around AD 1000. European explorers were less than complimentary about the group, describing them as the 'Island of Dogs', the 'Islands Without End', 'The Islands of Flies', the 'Pernicious Islands' and finally, the 'Dangerous Archipelago'. 

Each lagoon has at least one 'pass' or entry into it, and these can be challenging to navigate due to the strong tidal currents. Time it wrong and it could easily spit you onto a reef. The secret is to enter and leave at slack tide. The problem is, none of the available references for tides seem to agree. Not only that, but the currents are influenced by sea state and barometric pressure. Once you have run the gauntlet, changed your underwear and are inside, it is hard to imagine the atoll was once the crater of a volcano, and even more bizarre, people live on them. Supply ships or planes bring in essentials. The pearl farming industry used to be big in these parts, but high taxes have seen all but a few go out of business.

Due to the challenges of entering and leaving the atolls, many sailors used to bypass the archipelago altogether on their way west. However, with modern navigation equipment and the fact that some lagoons now have marked channels in them, many sailors now stop to enjoy their beauty. The tidal currents in the passes must not be underestimated, however, and sailors need to keep a good eye out for hazards.

Kauehi Atoll

We were both a little apprehensive of entering a pass into an atoll and having studied the cruising guides, we settled on Kauehi as our first stop. This atoll has a pass that is 200 metres wide and the tidal flow is around 4 knots. It is described as being an atoll that is easy enough to enter or leave, day or night. This sounded perfect for us. 

The distance from Nuku Hiva to Kauhi is approximately 530 nautical miles, so this would take us 4-5 days. We left Nuku Hiva at 7am on a Tuesday and needed to be at the pass for Kauehi by 8am on Saturday to arrive at slack tide. Lots of boats had been waiting for a good weather window to leave the Marquesas for the Tuamotus, so it was like a mass exodus on that Tuesday morning. We had spoken to Kate and Byron on catamaran Ceylon, and Martin and Carola on catamaran Lani, the two boats we were rafted up to going through the Panama Canal, the day before and found they were heading to the same atoll, along with another catamaran called Destiny. We ended up forming a small flotilla and it was nice to be sailing in company with others for a change. We chatted to each boat a couple of times a day. We had 15-20 knots of wind for the first 24 hours and did 161nm, averaging 6.7 knots. This is one of the quickest 24 hour periods we have ever done. The wind died down on day 4, so we poled out the genoa. The catamarans were unable to do this and were amazed at how quick we were going. The whisker pole really is a great addition to the boat, otherwise the genoa would have been flogging in the light airs. About 5 miles from the atoll, we saw an anchor light from a boat at anchor in the south west corner of the atoll. As we could not see land, it looked as though the boat was anchored in the middle of the open ocean. Not long after this we were treated to the most fantastic sunrise.

Lani entered the Arikitamiro pass first. They reported back to the rest of the fleet that conditions were perfect and getting through the pass was easy. We went next, followed by Destiny and Ceylon. There were also around a dozen yachts heading out of the atoll, but the pass was wide enough for two way traffic. The three catamarans decided to head to the south west of the atoll but we made our way to the village of Tearavaro on the north east of the atoll. We bade farewell to the others and said we hoped we would catch up again soon. Our main reason for choosing to head to the village rather than go south, was that there was a marked channel to the village. The atolls have large coral heads or 'bommies' scattered all over and as we have a deep draft, we weren't keen to hit one. I think we made the right decision as we heard the catamarans calling to each other regularly on their way south, warning of bommies in the way. If they were a cause for concern to them with shallow drafts, they would definitely have been a cause for concern for us.

Maria and Allen on yacht Lady Jane who we met in Nuku Hiva entered the pass just behind us and were heading in the same direction, so we called them up on the VHF and said hello. They had sailed from Ua Pou in the Marquesas. They let us know there were some mooring balls outside the village, and some friends of theirs were already on one and they were going to join them. Having got our chain snagged on coral in Tahuata, we weren't keen to repeat the experience, so we followed them and took up one of the spare buoys. Lynne swam over the buoy to check it for signs of chafe and it looked in very good condition, so we were happy that we would be safe here for a few days.

Once settled on the mooring, we popped ashore briefly to get some provisions at one of the small stores and buy some baguettes. The next couple of days were taken up doing some boat jobs. Steve went up the mast to check the rigging, and we made lots of water as we had plenty of wind and sun to power the watermaker. Whilst we were making water, we saw a couple of remora (sucker fish) swimming around the back of the boat, so we fed them some baguette. The remora have a flat disc on their head which has suckers on it. They use these suckers to attach to larger fish, rays, turtles and sharks, where they feed off ectoparasites and loose flakes of skin. We have seen them attached to the bottom of Azzy from time to time when at anchor. 

One morning we took the rib ashore and had a walk around the village. We found ourselves being accompanied by two of the local dogs who were very friendly. The village is only small but it has 3 small grocery stores, a school and a church. Some of the houses we came across looked abandoned. Copra used to be the main source of income for the atoll in the late 1800's and early 1900's, and the selling of copra to Tahiti is still very much alive today. We saw piles of drying coconuts everywhere around the village. At one of the grocery stores, the bagged up copra was being weighed and labelled ready for a cargo ship to pick it up.

Pearl cultivation also used to be big business in the Tuamotus. Farming of the 'black' Tahitian pearl began in the 1980's. For the next 15 years or so, the world market price for these 'rare' pearls was so high that many farmers became ridiculously rich, ridiculously fast. By the year 2000, there were so many pearl farmers mass producing the pearls that the market became saturated and the prices began to fall. A lack of government regulation however, meant there were no production limits or quality guidelines. Buyers became wary. There was also a global recession and the availability of cheap Chinese-produced pearls meant the market collapsed. There was then an imposed export tax which made the pearls more expensive. At one time there were 50 pearl farms on this atoll alone and today there are none. Many of the old oyster nets are now just hanging in tress or on stands, destined never to be used again.

There was a small reef close to the mooring ball so we donned our snorkel masks one day and took the rib over to investigate. Sadly, most of the coral reef looked bleached and devoid of colour, but there were plenty of colourful fish to see.

Fakarava Atoll

We decided to leave Kauehi atoll early on 27 June, to enable us to arrive at our next atoll, Fakarava, at the correct time for slack tide at the Garuae Pass on the north end of the atoll. We slipped the lines at the mooring at 4am and followed our track to the pass. There was a quarter moon up to give us a bit of light. On our way out, we passed the cargo ship that was coming to pick up the copra. It was getting light by the time we reached the pass, and once again we had no issues getting through it. We got the genoa out and settled in to what we thought would be a nice downwind sail. However, the weather had other ideas!! After about an hour, it got darker and darker and it was evident we were going to get hit by a squall or two. The next few hours brought rain, strong winds, no wind and then when the wind did return, it came from every angle of the compass. It was pointless trying to sail so we motored for a while. Eventually, the wind settled down and for the last two hours of the passage we were able to sail, even though the waves were coming from all directions, causing confused seas.

The Garuae Pass is wider than the pass in Kauehi so we expected a relatively easy ride in. However, we could see rip tides in the pass and lots of eddies. It should have been slack tide, according to the tide timetable, but we had quite a current running against us. Steve did a sterling job of keeping Azzy on a straight course as we struggled to make more than 1-2 knots of speed. 

Once inside the shelter of the atoll, it was amazing just how calm it was as we motored towards the anchorage at Rotoava. The visibility was quite good despite the overcast conditions, so we were able to see the many coral 'bommies' (coral heads). We anchored in 10 metres of water and set about 'floating' the chain off the seabed by using fenders. Once the anchor was set, we took in the chain until we had one and a half times the depth of chain left. We then attached a fender and let 10 more metres of chain and then added a second fender. The theory is that as the boat swings around at anchor, the chain should be sufficiently high enough off the seabed to avoid getting wrapped around any bommies. As usual, Lynne snorkeled over the chain and all appeared to be okay, so we went ashore and headed to Fakarava Yacht Services. A lady called Stephanie and her husband open their house to visiting yachts and offer a fantastic service - laundry, propane tank filling, bike hire and every yachtie's favourite, free WiFi. 

Eyes down on various devices

There was quite a crowd of yachties already sat outside glued to their various devices, and there was a lively discussion going on about the weather. A weather front was due to hit in a couple of days, bringing the mama'aru winds that can occur at this time of year. Steve downloaded the weather and was shocked to see a huge weather system covering the whole of the Tuamotus and beyond was certainly on its way, with forecast winds as high as 40 knots. It was forecast to last at least a week. 

The winds would be coming from the south and south east direction and as we were in the north east end of the atoll, we would have no shelter at all. It was suggested that the best place for protection in the atoll would be in the south east corner, at a place called Hirifa, about 30 miles away. Stephanie, who runs Fakarava Yacht Services with her husband informed us that there were no onshore facilities at Hirifa, and that included mobile coverage and WiFi.

It was clear that we would have to leave the anchorage at Rotoava and make our way to Hirifa early the next day, to enable us to reach Hirifa in good daylight to anchor. I (Lynne) was a little disappointed to have to leave so soon as my 50th birthday was going to be in two days time. I was hoping to be able to FaceTime my parents and my twin sister Louise. But, I knew safety must come first, so I quickly sent messages to them explaining the situation, with the promise to call them as soon as I was able. Steve promised to cook me a nice meal onboard and vowed we would have a belated celebration in Tahiti.

The next morning as we lifted the anchor, the wind was beginning to increase. Fortunately, we had no issues raising the anchor and removing the fenders from the chain. There is a marked channel to the south of the atoll, but we had been warned that we still needed to keep a good eye out for coral bommies not shown on the charts. We found ourselves in a line of 5 yachts all making the exodus from Rotoava to Hirifa. The atoll is the second largest in the Tuamotus and to give a sense of perspective, the distance between the two anchorages was the same distance as sailing from Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne to Brighton!

The wind was 10-15 knots on the nose and we had to motor as the channel was not wide enough to tack our way down. We made sure to record our track, to make life easier when we made the return journey north. It took around five and a half hours to reach Hirifa and there were already 27 other boats at anchor. We chose a spot in 10 metres and paid out 65 mteres of chain. We didn't want to take any chances if things got nasty. On snorkeling over the chain, we couldn't see any coral bommies. It appeared we were anchored in a sandy patch, so we didn't bother with fendering off the anchor chain, as it is quite a faff when lifting the anchor up. We then set about making Azzy as 'storm-proof' as possible. We folded away the bimini, removed the dodgers and horseshoe life ring, put the cockpit cushions below and lowered the rib into the water and tied it off the stern. This would create less windage. We also took some of the halyards forward to reduce any chances of them clanking on the mast in the strong winds. As usual, we also set the anchor alarm. 

For the next 9 days we experienced very windy weather, with gusts up to 43 knots. The strong winds were also accompanied by Biblical rain. Neither of us had ever seen weather like it. However, despite the dreadful weather, we were very well protected and Azzy hardly moved at all. This surprised us both, as there was only a coral reef and a sandy beach with a few palm trees between us and the open sea. By the time the strongest of the winds arrived, we counted over 40 boats, including a very nice Gin Palace which we later found out was a mini cruise ship. I bet the passengers onboard weren't pleased with being boat bound and stationary for so long!

If you look closely, you can see the small cruise ship in the distance

Steve kept his promise and made me a lovely birthday dinner of lamb stew and a homemade lime tart for dessert which was delicious. We spent the day relaxing and watching some classic Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman films on the TV. 

After 4 or 5 days, we were going a bit stir crazy, so we decided to do a spring clean of the boat and do some serious de-cluttering. By the end of our efforts, we had bagged up 8 large bin liners of things for either the dustbin or a charity shop. We also replaced the filter in the watermaker and made lots of water as we had plenty of power, courtesy of the wind generator to power it. 

The night before we made the journey back up to Rotoava, the wind had dropped to just a couple of knots. We left Hirifa at about 7.30am to make sure we got to the Rotoava anchorage early to get a good spot. We knew that a lot of the other boats would be heading that way and it would soon get busy. As luck would have it, when we got to Rotoava, there was a mooring ball free, so we quickly attached ourselves to it and were relieved we didn't have to worry about getting wrapped around any bommies.

Nice waterfront property between the two anchorages

As soon as we were settled, we headed straight to Fakarava Yacht Services with a bag of laundry and an empty propane tank. We also jumped straight onto the internet. We called family members to let them know we were okay, and caught up on the news and admin. Unusually, there were no other yachties there, so we had the available bandwidth all to ourselves. We made the most of the WiFi over the next few days and were able to update the blog.

It wasn't long before the anchorage at Rotoava filled up. The small cruise ship that was anchored with us during the storm arrived, followed by two other small cruise ships.

The weather finally picked up the following day. The sun came out and the sky was blue. This was more like it! We could now see the true beauty of the atoll. What a difference a couple of days make.

A couple of days later, we went for a walk around Rotoava. We came across a local man shelling some kind of mollusc at the water's edge. He attracted some reef sharks who were waiting patiently for some scraps. The man explained they were very friendly and proved it by giving one a tickle. He did suggest we try it too but we were covered in sun tan lotion and insect repellent, so politely declined. When he fed the sharks, he made them work for it by hiding it under a rock.

As we walked further along the beach, we could also see some black tipped reef sharks circling a reef close to shore.

On one stretch of beach, some local children were building their version of sandcastles. They were using coconuts and flowers to make it look pretty.

Fishing floats that were once used to mark the many oyster nets for the many pearl farms here, are found everywhere. The locals use them as garden ornaments now. They decorate pillars, are used as hanging baskets or just hang randomly from trees. Some old oyster nets and bits of coral are also used for decoration.

About 2 kilometres north of Rotoava, on the reef side of the atoll, there is the Phare de Topaka (Topaka Lighthouse). It was built in 1957 and is no longer in use. When required in an emergency, a fire would be lit atop to signal neighbouring atolls. Its style reminded us of some of the Maya temples we visited in Tikal in Guatemala. There is a ladder attached to one side of the tower. We did consider climbing it to get a birds eye view of the atoll, but it didn't feel very well secured to the structure, so we decided against it in the end.

A view of the reef side of the atoll, taken from behind the lighthouse

We were in Fakarava over Bastille Day and every island in French Polynesia has its own celebrations in the week leading up to the 14 July. In Rotoava, the locals hosted an evening of traditional dance in the sports stadium. Apologies, but the quality of the following photos are pretty poor as the lighting wasn't so good.

Looking at the weather forecast, it is time to make a move and make our way to Tahiti and the Society Islands. The passage should be around 3 days.