One myth I would like to bust says “Charts of French Polynesia are inaccurate and atolls may be off by several miles” based on my observation this is simply not true. It may be true that substantial areas are not charted such as many of the bays of the Marquesas Islands and the vast majority of the interior of Tuamotu atolls. The charts clearly delineate these uncharted areas so they pose no risk. If you wish to explore these uncharted waters all you need is a sharp lookout and clear skies between the hours of 10AM and 2PM and the shoals and coral heads will be totally obvious and easily avoidable. Further, the charts are profoundly more accurate than those of the central coast of Mexico.
The real challenge of the Tuamotus is careful planning that ensures you arrive at an atoll pass with favorable currents and lighting. The tidal range in the Tuamotus’ is minimal with a normal range of only 1.5’. However, ebb (outgoing tide) currents may reach 6 and flood tides 3-4 knots. A pass may be only be a few hundred feet wide and narrow further on the interior to less than a hundred feet. The deepest section of the channel may only be 12’ and shoal very quickly on either side. Entering or leaving all but the widest passes is tense as you glide thorough ultra clear water appearing little more than knee deep. Acute details of the coral and reef fish are readily visible giving the impression that the keel will surely strike bottom at any moment. Each entrance or departure from an atoll is carefully coordinated with the tides to attempt to hit slack tide between high and low tides. For you sailors you can imagine each atoll as the equivalent of crossing a river bar and the complications involved with the addition of strong winds and big swell combining with the ebb current. Getting the timing right is mostly luck as there are few tide stations in all of French Polynesia which cover 1.2 million square miles of ocean. We are within a couple of hundred miles of the nearest station but, wind and swell have a substantial influence at the waves crash over the atolls at places continually filling them up and in some cases cause a continuous ebb from the lagoon. So far we have guessed well and have only needed to wait an hour or so for the currents to moderate before leaving.
Picking up from my last email we left the next day for a 20 hour overnight sail to Toau atoll and hit the pass at the tail end of the ebb and motored through only slightly confused seas. Once in the lagoon we enjoyed the company of only one other yacht for a day before a 130’ mega motor yacht complete with helicopter anchored nearby. The crew from the mega yacht were nice but, with multiple daily flights of the chopper became a bit annoying as it interrupted the unadulterated sounds of nature we become so accustom to. We made fast friends with the other sailing yacht S/V Desire with David and Virginia on board. We enjoyed snorkeling on a nearby reef and learned some new fish species, as well as some fresh competition for our daily Scrabble tournaments. The snorkeling was unbelievable with Eagle Rays, Sharks and all sorts of fish swimming under the boat as if you were floating on top of an aquarium. Once in proximity of a reef the number and variety of fish was simply amazing. Despite Kitty and Karl’s dive master from Manihi being attacked by a shark we were not deterred from swimming although, any shark over three feet still freaks me out.
On shore there was an old abandon fishing or copra shack about ½ a mile down the palm lined beach that had a several thousand gallon cistern to collect rain water. We enjoyed the opportunity to do some laundry on shore and haul water back to the boat to replenish our drinking water supply. Karl and Kitty worked tirelessly to collect, husk and shred coconuts in the production of coconut milk. Coconut milk is created by squeezing the finely shredded coconut meat to extract the rich milk. Coconut milk is wonderful for cooking fish, adding to rice dishes and the ultimate tropical treat in an ice cream type form after it has been refrigerated. The couple on S/V Desire rescued two really cute, almost starved to death puppies that had been abandon on the island and were nursing them back to health with a plan to take them to Tahiti to a shelter. Dogs are numerous on all of the inhabited islands and since S/V Desire was headed to Tahiti a 250nm passage they suggested since we were making only a three hour passage to the next atoll that we might transport the dogs there in hope they would find new homes. We agreed and grew quite attached in the short time we had the puppies on board and quickly took them ashore when we arrived at the atoll of Fakarava. It seemed almost criminal to just drop the dogs on the beach but, it’s a different culture down here and we at least prevented them from starving a deserted atoll. A few days later we were relived to see the dogs had been adopted or at least were being fed by one of the locals.
The atoll of Fakarava is one of the larger atolls measuring 32 miles by 15 miles and the town has a bakery, post office and two small grocery stores. The selection was good in the stores if you didn’t want any fruits or vegetables as they had none in any form besides cans. We stuck around a few days and got to know the baker named Coco quite well and spent a few hours each day hanging out at the bakery playing ping pong on Coco’s table. Otherwise, we waited around for quite a few days hoping supply ships would bring in some fresh fruits or vegetables as this was our primary purpose for stopping at Fakarava. About 8 other yachts also stopped hoping to reprovision as well and were largely disappointed when a rumor that fresh stuff had arrived didn’t pan our for anyone but us. It was funny to see 15 or so cruisers standing around this tiny store discussing how the lack of any fresh food was going to drive them out of the Tuamotus an on to Tahiti. I guess this is how it works… once you can’t tolerate canned foods anymore you move on to reprovison. The only thing that grow in the Tuamotus is coconuts. We did however get a bit lucky as once we determined the rumor of fresh foods to be just a rumor we went the extra half a mile to the other grocery store and scored all of the remaining vegetables consisting of 4 tomatoes, 3 tiny bell peppers, 2 cucumbers and two heads of lettuce. I know it must seem crazy to get excited about a few overpriced ($12) not so fresh or pretty vegetables but, they will keep us going and happy for another week in this picture perfect paradise. From the main and only town we sailed South in 20 to 25 knots of breeze along the inside of the atoll which was amazing as there were no wind waves just the beautiful breeze whipping us along. About half way down the atoll we spotted a nice sandy beach and anchored for the night. The snorkeling was poor but, the solitude was nice since there wasn’t another boat within fifteen miles. Karl and I went night snorkeling in hopes of catching a few lobster but, ended up with only a strange crab. There was nearly a full moon and you could see quite well, even underwater, with the brilliant moon light making for a exhilarating experience.
The next day we sailed again with great winds to the Southern most anchorage and anchored in 30’ of crystal clear water near the second of two passes into the atoll. The wind has been and continues to blow quite had with steady winds in the 20’s and gusts to 30 knots from a unusual direction making the anchorage pretty rough as it’s filled with white caps. We did however venture over to the pass in a short dingy ride and snorkeled a bit late in the afternoon. The snorkeling was fantastic completely blowing away the last stop in Toau. Stepping out of the dingy into tiny cove along the pass we watched small sharks 3-5’ feeding on small fish in 2 to 3 feet of water. Slipping into the water you were on an eye to eye basis with the sharks as they circled around and nibbled at a school of small fish. The water quickly dropped off to about 45’ at a 60 degree angle and provided an amazing array of bright corals, fish and of course the sharks. At one point I could clearly see 7 sharks around me and since they were pretty small 3-4’ I was only mildly fearful of their approach. We also enjoyed a close encounter with a harmless but large Napoleon fish that weighed and easy 100+ pounds with no exaggeration. Karl and Kitty are doing a pass dive in the morning and I plan on more snorkeling.
The wind has yet to abate and we watched a movie this evening on the surplus of power we’ve been generating with the wind generator (up to 26amps) but the anchorage so rough everyone is feeling a bit queasy. The wind is also making me worry as it’s shifted and has us backed up to a shallow coral reef only a few hundred feet away so I don’t expect to get any meaningful sleep tonight… if any. At the moment it a little past midnight about 3 hours past my bedtime but, I know I won’t sleep a wink with the catastrophic risk of losing the boat to a coral reef. I’ve decided to stay up all night on anchor watch in these windy and squally conditions. Julie, Karl and Kitty all offered to stand watches as well but, I know I still won’t sleep with wind sustained gusts howling though the rigging upto 35 knots making the times it drops into the low 20’s seem calm by comparison. Karl dove on the anchor after we initially dropped it and confimed we were well set with the anchor hooked on a huge chunk of coral. I’m still worried as if the anchor system were to fail we would have precious moments to try to start the engine and avoid the reef. As much as I would like to move to a more suitable anchorage, unfortunately, once the winds starts to blow this hard it’s impossible raise anchor and the option of sailing around the coral head dotted lagoon at night is not a good option. I wish were anywhere but here and would greatly prefer being at sea as it is much safer as the boat can usually take more of a beating than the sailor. It’s now 2AM and the anchor snuber (a 30’ ½ nylon rope that absorbs some of the shock of waves and wind) just snapped with a huge bang. The snubber was doing it’s job by absorbing the shock loads but the constant stretching wore the rope thin causing it to break. The snuber basically provides some give in the system as the anchor gear consists of 300’ of chain which of course does not stretch. Since the bow of boat is pitching up and down in the waves maybe 8’ every 4 seconds the anchor could be jarred free with out the shock abosorbing stretch of the snubber. I have several spares so it was a quick fix and I upgraded the snubber to 50’ and 3/4” rope in less than five minutes.
It’s now 4:30AM and blowing harder than ever with a record gust of 39.8 knots or 45 MPH. I’m definitely not having fun and after drinking 4 Cokes am very awake. A note to all the mothers: Rest assured we are not in harms way. If the anchor gear were to fail the boat would wash ashore and we would more or less step on to dry land. I’m concerned about the boat as it would be a total loss.
So we made it though the night without incident and having waited until noon with out the wind easing below 25 knots we’ve decided to try to pull the anchor. Karl just did a quick snorkel to check out the situation and found that we have or chain snagged on numerous coral heads so retrieving the chain will be tough in these conditions. As it turns out it was much more difficult than expected and in one particularly large wind wave we broke the bow roller completely off the bow adding an additional complication to retrieving the anchor gear. All told it took about 50 minutes to get the anchor onboard sans a bow roller that will need to be replaced in Tahiti.
We are now a little more than half way to Tahiti a 260 nm passage and making good time in 18 to 22 knots. We should be in Papeete sometime tomorrow morning.
Next update will be from Tahiti where I hope to get a day or two of internet access to upload a selection of the 1500 or so pictures we’ve taken since departing Mexico.
S/V La Vie
S 17° 01.01’
W 148° 10.98’