Monday 30th July - Apataki Atoll

Jon & Carol Dutton
Tue 31 Jul 2012 06:44

15:20.60S 146:11.86W

Monday 30th July – Apataki Atoll

Having slipped our mooring in Anse Amyot at 0840 on Saturday we sailed in a gentle NE Force 3 to arrive off the SW entrance to Apataki at around 1230.  As we’d hoped, following a series of arcane calculations based on the times of moonrise, moonset and high and low water in various ports around the place, it was pretty well slack water.  We motored through the pass, turned south at the end of it and anchored just east of the village, Nuitahi, in about 15m of water.  There is a dock in the pass but it is rigged up for supply ships and the huge permanent fenders in place are just not things alongside which you would wish to place a yacht of any normal size.  There is a tiny harbour at the seaward end of the dock but it will accommodate only very small yachts with drafts of, say, 1m or less.  In addition there is a small pass lying between the village and a coral bank on the lagoon side of the dock.  That is blocked off at its southern end by fish traps and is otherwise taken up with local boats engaged in fishing or the pearl farm located on the coral bank.  So, if you want to anchor near the village you end up pretty much where we were.  Fortunately the wind was light and due to remain so because this is not an anchorage for the prudent in the prevailing Force 4-5 easterlies.  Neither is it a particularly calm anchorage.  You are very near the pass and the current, when it gets going, does so enthusiastically.  A considerable chop develops nearby on the incoming stream.  But, hey, we were safe and well.

After lunch we dinghied ashore to Nuitahi and tied up in the little harbour to seaward of the dock.  There wasn’t a great deal to see apart from a catch of yellow fin tuna just brought ashore – it will all be consumed within the village apparently.  It did appear that the vegetation was significantly more verdant and varied than on the other atolls we’ve visited so far.  No idea why but there may be a good reason.  And everyone, it seems, uses pedal tricycles with large baskets on the back to get around.  The baskets serve as people carriers as well as everything else.  Getting back to the boat from the village was a bit of an adventure.  Despite the predictions of the Admiralty based on moonrise/moonset and all that, the outgoing stream was going like a train when we set off at around 1700.  It took a good 15 minutes to get back into the lagoon with the 5HP outboard going full chat.  About 10 of those minutes were spent covering 200 yards at the narrowest bit of the pass.  Moreover, there was a lot of chop to drive through and a lot of coral to cuddle up to, to try to find slightly slacker water so that we weren’t going backwards.


                                                                                        Main Street, Niutahi


                                                                                        Today’s catch in Nuitahi


Modest (not) pearl farm on coral reef east of Nuitahi                Hermit crab in des res with stunning sea views

On Sunday morning we set off for the SE corner of the atoll to visit what our French pilot book mentioned as a pearl farm with some very welcoming people running it.  We were now going off-piste.  Only a narrow strip of the atoll stretching from the SW entrance to the NW entrance merits the French Hydrographer’s apt description of “Zone Incomplètement Hydrographiée”.  The rest of the lagoon is described as “Zone Non Hydrographiée”.  He has, considerately, marked in some of the bigger bits of coral that rise abruptly to the surface from a depth of 20 or 30m but by no means are they all there.  It’s a bit un-nerving at first knowing that neither you nor he has much idea what’s out there but that’s only because we’ve been spoilt.  Keep your eyes wide open, your polarized sunglasses on and don’t think about doing this stuff except between 0900 and 1500 in good light (preferably sun behind you) and you’ll be fine.  Not even the locals would venture out after dark.  That said, it’s not a slalom course.  We had to make significant alterations of course perhaps 4  times on the 15NM route we took following vaguely the southern shore of the atoll to get to the SE corner and on each occasion we’d identified the uncharted reef a good mile away.  The French Hydrographer has also been very cautious in his insertion of the 5m and 10m contour lines around the internal periphery of the atoll.  When we picked up a mooring outside the reputed pearl farm on Sunday afternoon we were a good 300m inshore of the charted 5m contour line – 200m from the shore - but in about 8m.  Same story this afternoon.  We’re just inside the charted 5m contour line but lying in getting on for 15m.  As you might expect, much closer than about 200m from the shore and all bets are off.  You really are on a slalom course in your dinghy.  So, if coming back to the boat after dark, best have noted your route back with a bit of care.

Having arrived at the reputed pearl farm at the SE corner at around 1500 we found 4 mooring buoys and a couple of other yachts already occupying two of them.   The moorings were clearly substantial enough for us.   Bliss!  Ashore we were greeted like long-lost friends by Alfred and Pauline who are the son and daughter-in-law of the pearl farmers known to the authors of our French pilot book in 1998/9.  We asked about having dinner – not hoping for much – and were delighted to be told that we could have either steak or fish and that all would be ready at 1900.  We both opted for fish and that was a triumph.  It was barbequed grouper with rice accompanied by a side dish of marinaded raw grouper (in rice wine vinegar – we think).   Now, Jon’s not a sushi sorta chap.  But . . .  

We spent several hours talking to Alfred and Pauline in a mixture of schoolboy/girl French and schoolboy/girl English, had great fun and learned a lot.  The pearl farm is no more, sadly.  Alfred gave it up as a bad job in 2008 once the producing power of the US, Japan, China and a major Tahiti-based emporium (Wang) made his relatively small scale production uneconomic.  His 11 workers had to go. 


The open air restaurant with Welsh flag taking pride of place.                   Coconut drying and so turning into copra

Nonetheless, he and Pauline still have a significant collection of (legal) black pearls for sale and Carol bought a couple to have made into earrings.  The quite incongruous sight of a multitude of yacht masts amongst the palm trees now made sense.  Having binned pearl farming they built a boatyard in which it is possible to lay up your boat (maximum draft 2m) safely whilst you nip back home to replenish the coffers enough to continue cruising.   Meanwhile, as elsewhere, they produce copra.


                                                            Literally, half a world away from Lymington Yacht Haven


                                                                    Now, would this slipway take a draft of 2.4m?  Nah!   

We slipped our mooring at around noon today and made our way north to the NE corner of the atoll – some 12NM away.  More sharp-eyed navigation was required but we arrived without incident and anchored around 1500 off a long white sand beach.  The plan tomorrow is to move west in the morning to the vicinity of the NW pass to the atoll, await slack water at around 1600 and leave on an overnight passage for Rangiroa some 80NM away.  Slack water there should be around 0900 on Wednesday so we’ll have to try to sail pretty slowly – at less than 5 knots.  Hey, ho.