Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tranquil Tahanea

11th-16th November 2017

1200px-Flag_of_the_Tuamotu_Islands.svgDeparting Makemo on dusk through the western pass, the path ahead was thick with a frenzy of hundreds of feeding birds.

It was an amazing sight and one which we could not avoid ploughing straight through the middle of. The birds certainly weren’t too phased about our presence. They parted to let us sail through, then closed the veil and resumed their feeding frenzy with gusto.

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Our next destination was the uninhabited and seldom visited atoll of Tahanea which lay 42 downwind miles further to the west. With a soft evening breeze pushing us along the conditions were shaping up for yet another glorious overnight sail under jib alone.

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507433876Tahanea has three entrance passes through the reef and we chose the wider middle one, Passé Teavatapu to enter through. We’d heard on the cruisers’ grapevine that this atoll now comes under the banner of a nature preserve.  Rumor has it that a park ranger from the neighbouring atoll of Fakarava  drops by once in a while but we have no real conformation on that subject.

downloadWe can only assume that if indeed it is a nature preserve it must be because of the endangered Tuamotus Sandpiper which has set up camp here.

There are less than 100 of these  birds left in existence due to the presence of black rats which inhabit many islands throughout French Polynesia. Sadly we never did lay eyes on these rare little creatures.

What we did see were plenty of fish. The Marquesas chain of islands where we’d spent the past two months is all about what’s above the water, but here in the Tuamotus it’s all about what’s in the water. And believe me there is plenty to see down there.

PB153743As I’d already tried my hand at a very short dummy run of “pass snorkeling” in Makemo, now it was time for both of us to hit the water and take the watery magic carpet ride courtesy of mother nature.  And what a hoot it was. The trick to mastering this new-found aquatic adventure is to head out in the dinghy through the entrance pass  just as the tide turns and starts flowing back into the lagoon.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts the currents flowing in the passes of the Tuamotu atolls really get up a good clip, usually at a rate of 3 - 6 knots or more, so it’s prudent to catch the incoming tide and not the outgoing one.

DSCN3243-800x6001So without further adieu it was time to hit the surf. Having donned wetsuits and snorkel and with the camera in hand we jumped overboard with a long line attached to the dinghy, floating along effortlessly as the current picked up speed. We did this in two of the three passes and you truly felt like you were flying above the sea bed. The fish, sharks, rays, turtles and coral below us whizzed by as we got carried along at an ever increasing pace. 

PB153739The ride lasted only minutes before we were spat out into the lagoon as the rushing current began to fan out and dissipate. We looked at each other with smiles on our dials, clambered back into the dinghy, revved up the mighty mercury and headed back out for another exhilarating ride.

To coin a well known advertising line the experience was Priceless!

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Moving south in the lagoon over the next few days we anchored further down the atoll, tucking in behind the small motu (islets) and changing our location every once in a while. We explored the ocean shoreline with it’s rust colored reefs and tidal pools, and  snorkeled a couple of spectacular coral pinnacles which boasted a myriad of life ranging from itsy bitsy brightly coloured fish to the big guns roaming the bottom some 30 feet below.

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It certainly seemed that we had found paradise here in the Tuamotus but even paradise has its pitfalls. That pitfall came in the form of flying insects!

As was the case in the Galapagos and the Marquesas where I was previously bitten, the nasty yellow wasp has found it’s way to this corner of the world as well.  This time I really copped a beauty.

PB133681Just as were were about to drop the anchor, whamo, the yellow flyer struck attacking my index finger like a rabid dog. The pain was excruciating. Obviously that put a very sudden stop to dropping the anchor as I retreated to the cockpit with watering eyes and a finger and hand that was swelling up at a rapid rate as the minutes passed. Liam spun the boat around pointing the bows back into deeper water until I regained my composure, which took a bit of time. Eventually the pain began to ease and we picked a sandy spot between the coral and dropped the anchor for the night.

The swelling continued to progress up my arm where it stayed for over a week. No amount of ibuprofen or antihistamines helped and with no villages let alone medical help within cooee, we just had to sit it out and let my body deal with it. An epi pen is definitely now on the top of my medical shopping list.

PB143703Moving further back up the atoll we stationed ourselves near the northern most pass and did a few more drift snorkels, fascinated by the ever changing array of fish life going about their daily lives below us. We also had our own private aquarium happening at the back of GWTW. Blacktip sharks, parrot fish, rays and snapper hung in the shadow of our hulls looking for handouts.  All of them were totally nonplussed about our presence in the water with them. Can’t say that we felt the same about the sharks though.

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Apart from the wasp incident we really enjoyed our time at this little atoll and we definitely would recommend a stopover here for those following in our wake.

As always when a good weather window rocks around we snap it up and move on. Up next on our list was the famous dive atoll of Fakarava. Everyone who has spent time here raves about the place and we couldn’t wait to get there.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Makemo : Big Fish & Little Fish

3rd-10th November 2017

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Exiting the pass at Raroia a beautiful full moon rose behind us. Our next destination, the atoll of Makemo, lay 70 miles ahead of us. Wanting  to arrive just as the tide turned meant that we really had to pull in the reigns on GWTW, so we opted for running with only the jib. The mainsail would not see any action on this doddle of a passage.  By midnight we had rolled away one quarter of the jib in order to slow us down even more. The sea was flat and the full moon lighting the way was making for an ideal night’s sailing.

DSCN2227Around 4am the wind increased to 15-20 knts  so we furled what little of the jib was still out and glided downwind under bare poles. Even with no sails up it looked like we were still going to arrive too early. The dawn revealed an overcast sky and a choppy seaway of around 5 ft, not the most ideal conditions to make our debut into Makemo if conditions didn’t improve.

Arriving at 1030 we hung around out the front of the north-eastern Arikitamiro pass for about a half hour as the wind kicked up the waves. An hour later conditions were beginning to slowly settle and we decided to head in even though the outgoing tide was in it’s last stages of running. Heading in was a little boisterous for maybe five minutes, but once inside the lagoon was as calm as a bathtub.

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Being the weekend the village would be in chill-out mode and what shops there were would be closed until Monday, so we decided to head to the southwest corner of the atoll and we were glad we did.

DSCN2262Running along the shoreline was an unending band of aqua water punctuated by splashes of green with small motus covered in swaying coconut palms. It was a stunning scene. We found a suitable spot behind a heavily wooded motu and crept forward to a sandy patch surrounded by a few well spaced coral bommies, dropping the anchor in 25 feet. The clear waters beckoned and we couldn’t help ourselves but to dive in.

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The next three days were spent meeting our aquatic neighbours. Some obviously had cousins on other reefs we’ve visited during our travels in years gone by but there was also a goodly amount of new faces that we’d not encountered before. With oodles of small bommies within easy swimming and dinghy distance from the mothership and we investigated them all. Liam, the relentless hunter and gatherer, spotted a nice size camouflage grouper about 15ft down which on which he tested his spear gun technique. Shortly after, said  grouper became barbequed grouper. And no, it wasn’t the cute one in the photo above.

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PB083417The lure of eating fresh baguettes meant leaving this little slice of heaven so we retraced our steps eight miles back to the village. We tucked in behind the town dock and dinghied in. In my best but very poor French I asked where the Boulangerie (bakery) was and was delighted when the response came to ‘allez tout droit, la maison blu, a droite”. Go straight ahead, the blue house on the right.

So down we toddled and there it was, well you really couldn't miss it with the big sign outside. We bought our baguettes and a couple of other things and continued on our walk. The place had a distinctive purple feel about it. Maybe the mayor liked that colour, or the villagers had a vote on it or that colour paint was the special of the day but for whatever reason the fences along the main road, the school and some of the building are, you guessed it, purple.

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During our walkabout we spotted an abandoned wind farm, not that there isn’t enough wind here to support one ‘cause there most certainly is. The trade winds blow day in and day out in this part of the world. The site looked very sad, an ambitious dream now defunct. There were at least six wind machines lying in various states of rusting decay on the ground. As with all the islands of French Polynesia that we’ve seen so far, solar power is  now king.  The streets of Makemo are concrete paved and the houses and yards tidy. Colour fills the flowerbeds and bicycles and tricycles are a familiar mode of transport. There are cars and utes but the peddle pushers  hold their own here.

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We weren’t long back on board when some interesting splashing not very far away caught my eye and through the binoculars I spotted some whales. Not wanting to miss out on some up close and personal time with these magnificent creatures, Liam and I jumped into our trusty ride and headed out towards them. At least six big humpbacks were putting on a marvelous display as they frolicked in the calm clear waters. No one else in the anchorage had spotted them so the show was all for us. I captured some of it on video and when I have a fast internet service I’ll add it to this post. For now a few still shots will have to suffice.

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While near the village we attempted our first pass snorkel. Liam rode shotgun as I jumped in.The current was getting along at a fair clip but I did see a few sharks, which really spooked me, lots of small fish which didn’t and walls of coral that disappeared into the abyss before I called it a day.


PB053356We sailed up to the western  end of the atoll and spent a couple of days there doing all the usual water based activities  before heading out for another overnight run to our next atoll, Tahanea, 42 miles further west.

So many atolls, so little time.



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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tippy-toeing through the Tuamotus.

Raroia

28th October –3rd November 2017

After earning the status of coastal cruisers while in the Marquesas, as we only did day hops from anchorage to anchorage and island to island, it was an almighty shock to the system when we departed Fatu Hiva for a 400 mile, three-nights-at-sea, sail to Raroia in the Tuamotus. We’d really fallen off the ocean cruising horse after resting on our laurels for so long.

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The weather was pretty benign and it was a true downhill sail all the way. By 8pm the first night we were back in the saddle of our seagoing routine. There was about a half moon out, just enough to light the way for a few hours each night and a nice gentle 10kt north easterly pushed us along as we goose-winged with  a reefed main and full jib. It was a very easy sail combo that was quite conducive to having a pleasant night’s sleep.

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PA312940The wind piped up briefly on our second day so we dropped the goosewinging and pulled the jib over to  starboard. GWTW was purring along nicely with just a hint of swell to let us know we were actually on a boat. Unlike our previous ocean passage from the Galapagos where we had lots of birds, flying fish and squid landing on the deck, this time except for one flying fish which thundered into the cockpit and was quickly relocated back into the sea by the captain, we saw very few.

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We arrived as planned at the entrance pass to the atoll of Raroia right on slack tide. Without any current rushing in or out, the pass was as flat as a pancake. We motored in following the easily seen range markers escorted by a pod of very fat dolphins, turning to starboard once inside to follow the channel markers all the way to the village.

PA312965The tidal streams in the atoll passes of the Tuamotus are a thing to be reckoned with. So for those of you who don’t know much about the passes and tides, let me explain what the fuss is all about.  First up most of these atolls are big, we’re talking anywhere between 15-30 miles long by 10-15 miles wide. They are deep too, up to and over 100 feet in most passes and lagoons, so the volume of water inside the lagoon is enormous. That water of course never completely drains out but a goodly amount of it does. The passes as a rule, with the exception of a couple, are not that wide either so the rushing effect of the water squeezing in and out is pretty damn impressive to say the least.

When entering or leaving a pass you preferably need good light, the wind at your back and particularly when entering, you want the sun overhead or behind you so you can see the reefs and bommies that lie between you and your chosen anchorage, You really don’t want to hit anything hard.

If you do happen to miscalculate the tide times and you’re not at the helm of a cruise liner or cargo ship, you have to either hang around outside and twiddle your thumbs for 6 hours waiting for the next slack, assuming that there is still daylight to enter, or turn around and head back out to sea and try again tomorrow. Or in the case of an outgoing tide, put on your brave face, stoke up the boilers and charge forward fighting standing waves and a raging tide that can reach speeds of between 5-8 knots, and that isn’t a really smart thing to do, although I’m sure it has been done. If you miss slack tide by an hour you could still make it in or out but it would be a little boisterous, anything after that well, it’s your call.

PB012976So now we are down at the village and it’s time to pick a spot to anchor. We checked out a couple but decided it was a tad tight for us with all those rocky outcrops within biting distance of our hull, so we moved a little past the main wharf to where there were less evil looking rocky outcrops and a bit more room and more sand. We plopped down our big hunk of steel in about 40ft, and as there was nothing that we could see lurking below  we settled into our cosy corner off the sandy beach in front of the airport terminal.

Next morning we went ashore for a little walk around. There were plenty of houses with neat yards, a post office, school, a lovely old church but no people out and about except for one chap on a tricycle who stopped to say hello and shake Liam’s hand. The village only has a couple of streets and by the time we walked back to the dinghy the headcount of people we’d seen was ten. We never did find the grocery store, but I guess it was there somewhere.

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PB013037 (1)The general consensus was that there was really not much to keep us here except for the fact that sometime in the past 24 hrs our chain had managed to get tangled up on a bommie 30ft below us. Liam had to put on his freediving hat, swim down and actually move the anchor over about four feet which then freed the chain. It took a bit of fancy maneuvering but we managed to get it up without getting snagged again.

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As the wind had picked up from the east we decided to head over to the eastern side of the atoll and hide behind one of the many little Motus (small palm tree covered islands) to find calmer water and  shelter from the wind for a few days.

Following the waypoints by those who have gone before us we successfully made it across the lagoon without hitting anything hard.  An hour later we anchored just off a motu commonly known as Kon Tiki island. This is where Thor Heyerdahl and his crew unintentionally made landfall in  their wooden raft after their epic  journey from Chile across the pacific in 1947. A monument has been erected ashore in memory of their voyage and the Norwegian flag, although a bit worse for wear, still flies, not the original one of course.

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PB023151We spent two delightful days here snorkeling, beachcombing, wading in the shallows of the reef at low tide, flying Liam’s drone and chilling out. Then we moved about a mile further south to yet another tiny motu covered with dozens of palm trees. The water was absolutely crystal clear, just like looking through a pane of glass.


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If this is how the rest of the Tuamotus are going to be we are gonna love it here.

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