Makemo to Fakarava in the Tuamotus

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Tue 11 Jan 2011 00:26
Position Report –– 16:03.481S 145:37.339W

When I worked in Travel PR, my boss used to say that her favorite place in the world was the last place she visited.  That was usually a very diplomatic way to keep everybody happy and a very good answer when pitching prospective clients.  But, you know, it seems to apply very well to our adventure on Peregrina because every country, island, or archipelago we visit becomes my favorite place in the world and that was certainly no exception with the Tuamotus.

First of all, where ARE the Tuamotus?  Believe me, I had never heard of them either!  We’ve been heading west, southwest from Panama across vast stretches of the Pacific and every once in a while we would run into an island chain like the Galapagos or the Marquesas or an archipelago such as the Tuamotus.  (Correction!  Peter just informed me that it was not exactly an ACCIDENT that we arrived in the Galapagos, Marquesas or Tuamotus and that I should give him some credit for his excellent navigational skills rather than implying that we were just running around the South Pacific randomly bumping into islands willy nilly!)  Opps!!! A bit touchy, isn’t he?

Anyway, as we headed to French Polynesia (where we’ll visit the more well-known destinations such as Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea) we were lucky enough to call upon these smaller islands and atolls that don’t necessarily appear in travel brochures.
The Tuamotus are 69 low-lying atolls running approximately 700 miles along a line from the northwest to southeast as one approaches Tahiti from the Marquesas.  Early European sailors named them the “Dangerous Archipelago” because of their tricky currents and the fact that they cannot be seen until you are almost on top of them and that is absolutely true.
The two atolls that we visited in the Tuamotus were Makemo and Fakarava.  Both were large, rectangular shaped atolls (basically volcanic crater rims sticking out just above and below the surface of the water) encompassing a beautiful but, sometimes, treacherous lagoon.  There are 69 atolls altogether in the Tuamotus – some you can anchor outside of and dinghy into, some you can enter via passes or channels, some are entirely enclosed.  The two atolls we chose to visit allowed us entry from one end and an exit out the other so we were able to traverse the inside of the lagoon between anchorages.  However, getting in and out through the passes can be very difficult with the huge currents and not a lot of space to maneuver.  (Some of these passes are only 50-75 feet wide!) Once inside, you’re not home free either as the threat of underwater or barely exposed rock formations made the journey very nerve-wracking.  Peter had to hoist me up the mast on a bosun’s chair and I used our walkie-talkies to let him know about all the danger zones so he could zig zag his way through.  It was scary but, at the same time, pretty cool from my perspective.

BTW, We LOVE our walkie-talkies!  And everyone on the BWR wants to get a pair now that they’ve seen us with ours!  At first, I thought, “There’s NO WAY you’re going to catch me wearing this dorky headset and microphone.”  The guy who was trying to sell them to us called them “marriage savers” and he said we’d understand why the first time we used them.  Well, he was right because they are mainly used for anchoring and when someone is up the mast and you can’t hear very well due to distance and high winds.  If you have ever seen a couple trying to anchor a boat in a storm with the woman on the bow and the man at the helm and they are both SCREAMING at each other and trying all sorts of weird hand signals (including one that includes use of the third digit) you can see how these headsets would make the job a whole lot easier.  As to navigating through a minefield of underwater coral rock formations, you just can’t imagine how much better it is to transmit information in a cool, calm manner.  I’m thinking about writing the company with a testimonial from Peregrina.  Maybe they will let us test their new models for free?

Anyway, back to the Tuamotus….our first port of call was Makemo, an elongated atoll about 40 miles long and 10 miles wide.  We entered through the passage on the northeast side of the atoll which has a huge outgoing current.  We got in quite easily but the next day, one of the other boats, “Fai Tiri”, got thrown around so much in the channel that they had to go back out and try again a few hours later when the tide was slack. At one point they had their engine at full throttle going forward and they were actually going “backwards.”

 Once inside, we anchored in the harbor right outside the main village of Pouheva.  There are only 300 people living there but they do have a church and several small stores and a couple of “restaurants.”  One was really just a family home with a big outside patio where 12 of us had dinner the first night.  It was fabulous!  The next night, we went to a restaurant called 20/20 Karaoke where 16 of us had dinner and sang karaoke quite TERRIBLY all night long!  It was funny because everyone was so surprised when the others didn’t know songs that were considered “famous” in their estimation.    Peter was amazed that everyone didn’t know the Beachboys’ “California Girls” for example.  However, he did lead the group in a spirited version of “YMCA” and I did my best to teach everyone the “Macarena” while Jaime and Carmen from “Bionic” sang the words in their native Spanish!

Surprisingly, Makemo had five gigantic white wind vanes to generate power for the village, a gift from the French.  One afternoon, we took the three children from “Miss Tippy” (Charlotte "Charlie", 13, Freddie, 11 and Annie 9) on a walk to see the wind vanes so their parents could have a break.   We call them “The Tiplets” and they are the nicest kids.  We love having them visit us.  Since they are being home-schooled for two years, Peter is always trying to figure out fun educational things to do with them so the wind vanes were an afternoon excursion that we couldn’t pass up!  We walked all around them – no guards or fences to get in our way – and he talked to the kids about how they were constructed and how they worked to generate energy.  However, the best part of the day as far as the kids were concerned was when Freddie discovered a large severed wing of a bird that had obviously flown right into one of the wind vanes.  And then, about 200 feet away, the rest of the body.   Yuck!!!  Somehow, Peter was able to turn this rather gruesome incident into a “teaching moment” when he got them to start estimating how fast those wind-vanes really spin in order to cut the poor old birdy in two!  It does appear that they rotate very slowly but that is an optical illusion and, in truth, the tips of the wind vane can spin up to 100 miles per hour!  He also got in a little physics lesson as well - discussing how much further away the wing landed from the body of the bird which gravity had pulled swiftly down to the ground.  It was an unusual approach to learning that one certainly wouldn’t find in a normal lesson plan.  I’m not sure if this was exactly what the Tiplets’ parents imagined when they sent us off on our “field trip” but they treated us to a lovely steak dinner on their boat that night and we had a really great day.

We left Pouheva the next morning and headed to the northwest end of the lagoon - me up the mast on the lookout with my “walkie talkies” and baking in the noonday sun.  It was a little dicey as we left later than we should have and the afternoon sun was right in my eyes but we arrived OK (see Peter’s email for more details) and that night, we had dinner and a huge bonfire on the deserted beach with 11 of us from five boats - Peregrina, Simanderal, Bionic, Fai Tiri and Spirit of Nina.  The next day, we exited through the pass and sailed overnight to Fakarava. 

Arriving in Fakarava before daylight, we had no trouble getting through the pass at the southern end of the atoll as soon as the sun came up.  We anchored offshore and, that evening, we had a great dinner in an over-the-water restaurant which was part of a little dive shop/guesthouse in the village of Tetamanu.  The village of Tetamanu is mostly ruins now.  It was a thriving community in the late 1800/early 1900’s but is now virtually abandoned except for the diving operation. The next day we snorkeled right off the beach there and, less than 100 feet from shore, we came to a wall which descended hundreds of feet straight down and I have honestly never seen so many beautiful fish in my life!  Thousands of them in so many brilliant colors it was incredible!!!  We were swimming with HUGE Emperor fish and dozens of blacktip sharks just a couple feet away from us!  It was awesome!!!!

That night, we had an invitation from the owner of another guest house about a mile down the atoll who said that he would be delighted to host our BWR group and three other random boats in the anchorage for a “bring your own” potluck dinner.   His name was Manihi Salmon, a native Tuamotan of Scottish descent.  He looked like an image out of a travel brochure - a Polynesian God with long salt and pepper hair, no shirt and a pink and blue sarong!  I’m not kidding!  I was IN LOVE!!!  He runs this incredible little resort with 8 darling bungalows and a huge, wonderful outdoor dining area with a narrow passage of water running from the ocean to the lagoon right through the middle!   He has the water illuminated at night and you can see all the fish and sharks swimming practically right under your feet.  It was so cool.  Manihi generates his electricity through solar panels and the water is collected off the roofs into cisterns. We had a great time and met a lot of really nice people including 16 people aboard “Infinity” the largest ferro-cement boat in the world…so they said.  It’s a sort of eco-adventure charter boat that you sign on to for a minimum of 3 months.  They had people from all over the world and it seemed pretty cool… 

The next morning, we had planned to leave early for the main village of Rotoava. However, three out of the four boats found our anchors had gotten entangled in the coral heads below and it took us some time to unravel the chains.  Luckily, Hans and Jann, our Swedish contingent from “Natibou” volunteered to jump in their dinghy with masks and snorkels and they swam down each one of our anchor lines and directed us back and forth and around the coral heads until we were all free.  Just another example of how everyone on the BWR works together to keep us safe and on to the next destination.

We then had a relatively easy sail over 38 miles to Rotoava with only a few coral heads peeking through the surface and a couple hundred buoys (the English pronounce them “boys”) marking pearl farming equipment to avoid along the way.  Rotoava was a bustling little community of about 900 people with most everyone either fishing or pearl farming for a living. Those that don’t work here in the French Polynesian islands get generous subsidies from the French government so there’s very little crime and people are, in general, a very happy lot.  I made my contribution for the good of society when I purchased a beautiful black pearl necklace, much to Peter’s chagrin.  LOL

Some of the other cruisers actually went out on tours to the pearl farms and were able to dive for their own pearls as part of the package price.  The guide takes you to an area where the pearls are gestating in the oysters approximately 15 feet below the surface.  They are suspended in nets down under the water and you select a string of five oysters hung on each net, cut it loose from the others and then bring it back to the boat.  From there, the guide drives back to the farm and you open your oyster to see what’s inside.   You select the best (or largest) pearl from your string of oysters to keep.   Out of 100 oysters, 30 will not survive the shock of the grafting operation, another 30 will reject the grafted nucleus and 5 of the last 40 (just 2%) will yield what is considered a marketable pearl so the chances of finding a real “gem” are slim but Sue from “Camomile” found a pearl that measured over 12 mm and was quite spectacular.  The guide estimated that it was worth at least 10,000 francs which would be approximately $106 right there at the farm.  Imagine what the mark-up would be by the time it reached Europe or the USA?  
Leaving Rotoava behind, we exited the atoll the next day with Peregrina leading a group of three other yachts out a fairly rough pass and heading due west for Tahiti.  This would be a two night passage with anticipation building as we realized that, for the first time in several weeks, we would all be together again in one place – Papeete , here we come!!!

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