Tuamotus: The Dangerous Archipelago

James & Amelia Gould
Mon 7 Jul 2008 00:36

15 June - 4 July 2008: Tuamotus, French Polynesia


We had learnt to treat a benign weather forecast in these waters with a large pinch of sea salt, but as it was all we had to go by and we wanted to maximize our time in the Tuamoto archipelago we set sail from the Gambier islands on 15 June.  We left on a bright sunny morning full of promise, but by the time we had finished lunch and the silhouette of the Gambier Islands started to recede astern big black heavy clouds started to form all around.  We watched them carefully and most seemed to be heading for the Gambiers rather then for us (we were glad not to still be trapped in the anchorage at Taravai!) but one particular grey monster was making a beeline for Rahula.  As we watched, it swelled and magnified, and water spouts started forming, linking the cloud to the sea surface. We didn't fancy getting caught under this menacing maelstrom so we altered course and shortened sail to change our relative headings.  Luckily we managed to avoid most of what the squall had to offer, but it meant we were both keeping a nervous eye on the horizon for the rest of the day, furling our large Drifter sail at the first sign of a big cloud coming our way.  The weather continued to be unsettled the following day, changing from near calm to a strong breeze and back again in a few hours, necessitating endless sail changed. We made good progress, but we worked hard for it.  Overnight the wind started building and gusting 40 knots, stirring up the sea with it.  Rahula started surfing on some of the waves, so we rolled the Genoa to the smallest size and started to keep 3 hour watches instead of 6 hours as the motion became exhausting.  As dawn broke James went forward to set the staysail and we rolled away the Genoa completely, making the motion more comfortable and the boat easier to steer.  We spent the whole day running with the gale, the wind blowing between 38-45 knots and Rahula's stern rising and falling with the huge following seas.  The day was interspersed with heavy rainfalls, when the visibility was reduced to 200 yards.  By this stage we were navigating our way through the atolls of the Tuamotu archipelago and we were grateful that there was no land downwind of us for at least 200 miles, so we could keep running with the wind.  We used the radar when the visibility reduced to try to pick out ships, but saw nothing the whole day.  Neither of us felt hungry through the ordeal, despite being cold and wet, so the tinned food we had onboard gave us much needed warm sustenance - years of sailing on the South Coast of the UK taught us the value of a hot bowl of soup in a storm!  Though we had been in bad weather before (on the passage to Cartagena, Columbia) we had never been in such strong winds, and the sound of the wind howling through the rigging and the waves breaking astern was very unsettling.  This time the waves were not as steep, so we did not have any waves break into the cockpit and Rahula was bobbing along quite comfortably, but it was still awe inspiring to see the sea stirred up into big frothy mountains and daunting to wonder if the boat could take the strain.  As usual, Rahula proved her worth, and looked after us magnificently.   After 36 hours the wind started to abate to a more manageable 20-25 knots and we could finally relax a little and return to a standard sea routine, both absolutely exhausted from the strain of sailing in heavy weather.


Our third day at sea was somewhat easier, though still plagued by fluky winds and squalls.  We were both getting fed up with Pacific sailing where there either seems to be no wind or too much wind.  We decided to go to Hao after seeing a sign at the Mayor's office in the Gambiers advertising the Atoll.  Once we had calculated the appropriate time to enter the pass through the coral reef making up the atoll we had to maintain a certain speed to make the slot.  We ended up motor-sailing some of the last 50 miles to keep the speed up in between the gusts, but eventually, after 4 days at sea, the atoll came into view. 


Pacific atolls were formed millions of years ago when volcanoes rose up from the seabed, spewing lava everywhere.  The warm mountainside and steep incline forced nutrients up from the sea bottom and coral started to form around the base of the volcano.  Over time, the volcano became extinct and started being eroded by the sea, wind and rain.  In the mean time, the coral reef around it continued to grow.  After thousands of years the volcano disappeared completely, leaving only a ring of coral surrounding a shallow lagoon that makes up the atoll.  It is very strange sailing near these islands as the seabed rises steeply from 1000m to 3m in the space of 100m.  All the atolls are very low lying, not more than 3-5m above sea level, and the only way to identify them from a distance at sea is by the endless tall palm trees growing on them.  Some of the atolls have navigable passes through the ring of coral caused by fresh water run off from the volcano.  These passes are often the only way for the water in the lagoon to enter and leave with the changes of the tide, and so can have some pretty fast tidal streams flowing through them (reportedly 20 knots in some atolls!).  Hence it is essential to arrive around slack water, to make entering the lagoon as easy as possible and avoid the large standing waves that can form by the tidal race.  Calculating the times of slack water is a black art, and each book seems to do it differently, some relying on the times of moonrise and moonset and some on the times of high and low water.  To compound it all the slack time can change if the sea has been particularly rough, meaning more waves break over the windward side of the lagoon "topping it up" more than in an average tide, and starting the outflow earlier than expected.  For all these reasons the Tuamotus became known as the "Dangerous archipelago", as treacherous currents could drive a ship unsure of its position onto a reef in no time.  These days with GPS, radar, and accurate charts navigation is much easier, but we were still maintaining some sense of caution.


Despite our careful calculations the tidal stream was in full flow when we arrived at Hao's main pass, and we were whisked into the lagoon at 10 knots over the ground.  We anchored just before sunset and then finally relaxed after a difficult 4 days at sea.  After a much needed sleep we went ashore the following day to explore the village.  Everyone was very friendly, always greeting us and smiling, and the police were pretty relaxed about checking us in (we were the only visiting boat, though they usually get about 10 boats a year).  As we wandered through the streets we came across several groups of people sat in the shade with one playing a locally made Ukulele, carved to look like an electric guitar.  We went on the usual hunt for diesel and food, and found out that there is only one guy in the village that sells diesel and he is the driver of the atoll's tanker.  We found his house, and initially he was reluctant to sell us such a small quantity as normally diesel here is sold in 200 litre drums, but he gave in when he saw our pleading faces (I'm getting good at the 'please help the stranded yachtie' face complete with pleading eyes, or maybe it was Amelia's top and the short shorts that she was wearing…J).  So later that day we drove the dinghy up to his garden, and filled up our Gerry cans straight from the lorry with pure clear diesel.  Hao was used as a support base for French nuclear bomb testing in the atolls to the south, and there is still a big military base and airfield on the island.  We went for a walk along the main road leading through the base, past derelict barracks and concrete bomb shelters.  There was still a small army presence occupying some of the buildings and the Commanding Officer of the platoon gave us a lift back to the village when we became tired of walking.  His English was good, and he told us that the French army do two year postings to French Polynesia, and that it can get boring living in paradise.  He also told us there was going to be a village tournament that afternoon at the harbour, so we decided to go and watch.  The tournament was organised by the school's teacher, and it seemed like the whole village turned out to participate or watch.  A food stall was set up (chocolate cake, hamburgers and chips.  Yum!  J), and people wandered around in team T-shirts or holding placards made of woven palm leaves supporting their favourite team.  The tournament was like an "It's a knockout" competition and the first round involved two people paddling a kayak across the harbour, dropping off a third team member who was carrying a long pole with coconuts strapped to either end.  The third guy then had to run back around the harbour to the beginning while the two in the kayak paddled it back.  Then another person got in the kayak with the pole and all was repeated, tag team style.  It was fun to watch, and everyone really got into it.  We got chatting to the teacher's team who were all wearing red Hawaiian shirts and ended up supporting them.  The second competition involved swimming through the water while sitting on a float and balancing another float on your head.  It was all great fun to watch, and we were sad to have to go when it started getting dark (we didn't have a torch or any lights on Rahula and the journey back is through shallow coral and rocks best navigated with some light!).  As the sun set the party started and the loud music and drunken voices carried all the way to Rahula keeping us awake all night.  We thought the party was a one off because of the tournament, but the following night the village's teenagers gathered at the harbour again, partying until dawn.


After two days in Hao we had exhausted all there was to see and had finished the few odd jobs we had to do around the boat.  The forecast was for no wind, so we decided to head for a small atoll nearby and wait there for the wind to take us north.  We were determined to make the pass at slack water this time, so we got up at 0445 to give us plenty of time to get there.  Unfortunately our streak of bad luck was still with us, and we found that the anchor chain had stuck fast under a rock.  We spent an hour driving forwards and backwards against the chain, spinning the boat around the rock but it wouldn't budge.  Eventually we decided that James needed to swim down to have a look at what the chain is caught on (my ear is still bad, otherwise of course I would have volunteered!)(How convenient! J).  As we suspected, it was trapped under a mushroom shaped rock, so James attached another line to the chain, we transferred the weight and the chain came free.  (Sounds easy huh, but this was in 17m of water and I'm not allowed to have a diving cylinder onboard because the weight would mean Amelia would have to ditch some shoes so this was done holding my breath.  It took two dives of about a minute each to sort everything out, and on the second I paused to look around and it was like a grotto down there with beautiful arches and caves in the coral heads. I got a bit engrossed before I realised I was about to drown and made for the surface like a cork!  J).  We quickly pulled up the rest of the chain and drove away before we snagged on anything else.  The delay meant we missed the time for the pass, but we motored up to have a look anyway - as expected it was a raging maelstrom as the lagoon drained into the sea.  We considered anchoring somewhere along the inside of the reef to wait for slack water and spent a few pleasant hours following the edge of the reef looking for a suitable spot.  All along it seemed to be either too deep or too shallow and we were kept on our toes by the occasional coral head that would be breaking the surface in 20m of water.  We stooged past the pass several times and swore that the tidal race seemed to be easing (or was it wishful thinking?!).  About midday we were both tired of navigating through coral, and neither of us fancied the two hour upwind drive back to the village, so we decided to risk it through the pass.  We had 5 knots of outflow with us as we went through, and we took a few waves over the bow, but in less than 5 minutes we were through and back in the open ocean.


The next atoll, Amanu, was 20 miles away and we now had to get a move on in order to make slack water at the pass in that lagoon (the alternative was a night at sea hovering near the pass with no wind).  We motored all the way, and arrived by 1630.  Amanu pass is one of the smallest in the Tuamotus and navigating through it is made more complicated by the reef across the inside channel necessitating a sharp right hand turn as soon as a boat is through.  There were no overfalls at the pass so we headed in, only to find there was still a fast inflow, which whisked us into the lagoon.  James made a handbrake turn as soon as we were in (not easy with no handbrake…J), and then we were safely in the shelter of the lagoon.  Again we were the only boat, so we searched the area around the village for a suitable place to anchor.  As it was getting dark we anchored in the first good spot, in water deeper than we would normally like and over coral.  The following day we explored the area with the dinghy trying to find a better spot for Rahula.  A local told us yachts sometimes come into the shallow fishing boat harbour, but it all looked too tight for us (we had learnt our lesson, and now like anchoring somewhere where we can make a quick escape).  We found a nice sheltered bay south of the village and moved Rahula after the now usual hour spent untangling our anchor from the coral on the bottom.  This time James managed to break his free diving record, diving down to 19m in one breath!  The village in Amanu was very small (500 people) and more ramshackle than the village at Hao.  Another local came out to greet us as we wandered about and gave us a short introduction to the atoll.  It was only after a few minutes talking we realised that she was actually a he.  This is apparently a common thing in the small communities of the Pacific where there sometimes aren't enough women (Are there ever enough!? J).  We spotted another transvestite leading the village kids through a dance that looked like the Macarena in their classroom.  In the afternoon we went for a snorkel on the reef near Rahula and marveled at the crystal clear water, colourful coral and abundance of pretty fish.  Finally we had found what we had been promised the Pacific was full of - the boat anchored off a palm fringed island and surrounded by a beautiful reef.  We took the dinghy to explore a bit more of the small lagoon and found another spot that looked like good snorkeling, but as soon as I got in the water I spotted a shark on the bottom so I got straight back in the dinghy! (This was nearly as comical as the Rat incident [see Gambier Blog]… J)  That night the wind started to fill in and veer slightly earlier than forecast and our tranquil anchorage became a little uncomfortable, so the following morning it was another early start as we prepared to leave the idyllic surroundings in Amanu and head for our next destination, an atoll 300 miles to the north.  


We had a pretty uneventful 2 day sail to Fakarava, weaving our way through other atolls along the way.  Again we pushed hard to make the slack water time at the main pass in the north, figuring it was too rough to go through the south pass.  We made it through the pass slightly later than we wanted, but luckily this pass had a shallow spit we could pass over and avoid the worst of the tidal stream.  We anchored off the main village again and went ashore for a walk.  Fakarava is serviced by daily flights from Tahiti and so has a fledgling tourist industry.  This was apparent as soon as we stepped ashore by the tourist map and the sight of pearl shops and small hotels.  The village had a different feel to those on the other islands, and we were obviously less of a novelty.  Things were still very expensive, and I still couldn't face paying £7 for some processed horrible sausages - we ate vegetarian food again (I'd pay 10 times that for a juicy steak… J).  This was just a quick stop over though, as we had to get to the south of the atoll to meet my mum and her husband who were flying in for a visit in a few days.  So the following day we slogged 35 miles south across the lagoon into the wind, dodging rocks and oyster farms along the way.  It was a fun and challenging sail, different to the downwind motorway we had become used to (it was good to see Rahula hasn't lost the ability to sail upwind!  J).  We anchored in a shallow lagoon on the west side of the south pass in a beautiful sheltered spot.  The only unfortunate thing was that we had to negotiate a reef and cross the pass in order to get to the pension on the other side of the pass.


My mum and Barry arrived the following morning and it was great to see them again.  There was lots of excited talking as we all admired the pension and its location right on the pass and on top of a huge reef teeming with sharks and tropical fish.  The pension's owner, Annabelle, had lots of character and took us all into her care like a mother hen.  Her husband, Saney, was an old man of the sea who used to run the freighters that bring supplies to the islands from Tahiti.  He spoke little English but still managed to be funny and a good dive guide.  He loved his dog, Tetamanu, who he would secretly feed under the dinner table.  Annabelle suggested we moved Rahula to a mooring buoy near the pension so that we could come in for dinner at night and would not have to cross the reef and the pass.  We secured Rahula to the buoy, but still managed to have a few hairy incidents navigating the dinghy in the pitch black through coral reef and raging torrents of tidal stream… (We beached the dinghy on a coral head one night, missed our stop because we were swept down on another night and had to motor at full throttle to make it back, and got drenched nearly every night as we ploughed into the wind and waves going back) (Persevering with nightly trips to the pension for dinner was nothing to do with the fridge full of beer that Barry and I were slowly getting through… J).  We spent a few relaxing days with my mum and Barry, diving, snorkeling and catching up.  The diving was reportedly excellent (I couldn't go because of my ear) (It was amazing, some of the best I have done; in one dive you saw beautiful coral, amazing coloured reef fish and sharks in their hundreds, along with ocean pelagic like Barracuda and Tuna lurking in the current like thuggish teenagers and the next day would be better still.   I'd love to spend some time around there finding some new sites and really exploring an amazing underwater world.  J), the snorkeling superb (even though there were sharks everywhere!), and the food at the pension tasty and fresh.  Daily dives and snorkeling expeditions had to be planned around the tidal stream through the pass, so that a gentle amount of stream swept you in to the lagoon, making swimming unnecessary.  Once we went snorkeling when the outflow was quite strong and we rushed past the reef at a rate of knots flying like superman through the water.  It was all we could do to swim into the beach when we arrived at our "stop" and not get swept out to sea!   Dinner was served in a restaurant on stilts overlooking the pass, and was a buffet affair with all the guests and staff eating together on one long table.  I was impressed by the standard of the food knowing how hard it was to get provisions in the atolls.  The sharks obviously knew when it was dinnertime as well, as they would all gather around the restaurant ready to gobble up any scraps thrown in the water.  On a couple of days we could fish for our lunch and James and Barry helped Sane catch Soldierfish with a small hook and simple bamboo rod.  The fish kept leaping onto the hook, and James caught about 5 fish in the space of a minute! 


On one day it was very cloudy with frequent rain squalls blocking out the light, which meant it was not worth getting in the water.  We went for a walk around the island the pension was built on and marveled at the waves breaking on the reef on the windward side of the island.  Then when we got back to the lagoon side of the island the shelter from the palm trees was excellent and we barely felt any wind.  On our last day there I baked a banana cake to give to Annabelle to say thank you for looking after us.  She took us in as though we were hotel guests and gave us water, sold us eggs and generally fussed over our well being.  Malka and Barry checked out of the pension and moved onboard Rahula for a couple of days as we planned to take them back north to the airport to catch their flight to Tahiti.  They were pleased to have the relative luxury onboard as their palm hut in the pension was full of mosquitoes, did not have hot water, and there were fleas in the mattress…  We sailed Rahula back round to the sheltered bay to the west of the pass and explored the islands around the bay, collecting coconut water for breakfast.  There were hundreds of brown coconuts on the ground that had been eaten by coconut crabs, but it was difficult to find the green ones which yield the best water.  James and Barry climbed a few trees to get to the best coconuts and Malka had a go at breaking one open.  We went for a swim to cool off from all the exertion, and ended up scrubbing the hulls again.  In the evening we had a BBQ of fresh ocean surgeon fish James had caught under the mooring which Annabelle said we could eat.  They had bright blue skin which was very tough, but the meat was white and tender.  (I caught the fish with small hook loaded with banana skins and orange peel as bread is too valuable to us!  J)


We had a great sail back north across the lagoon, the sun shining all day and a gentle breeze moving us along at a comfortable speed.  Malka and Barry got a taster of the nice part of sailing, and seemed to think that is what it was like all the time!  We didn't have the heart to tell them what it was like when it was rough…  Back at the village we bought some frozen steaks for Barry's birthday dinner and managed to acquire some breadfruit from an old lady clearing her garden.  On our last day in Fakarava we found a nice boutique selling jewellery made using the pearls farmed in the atoll.  My mum bought me a lovely necklace, and we repaid her kindness by buying them both lunch in a cool café on the beach.  The café was decorated with coloured driftwood and strings of coral and served huge sandwiches (even I struggled. J) and salads.  In the late afternoon it was time for Malka and Barry to go to the airport to catch their flight back to Tahiti.  After they left we went to watch the rehearsal for the village fete taking place the following day, which we were going to miss as we needed to sail to Tahiti to meet up with Malka and Barry again.  The rehearsal was still good entertainment, with a camp Frenchman leading 40 odd women in a traditional Polynesian dance complete with lots of bum wiggling to a tune drummed out by a large band playing various percussion instruments.  Before the rehearsal we wandered around the sports field nearby and watched a group of men throw spears at a coconut tied to a long pole - it seemed like a good sport. 


We woke before dawn the next day and set sail for Tahiti, making it through Fakarava pass again without incident.  We really enjoyed the Tuamotus and found every atoll slightly different, though basically the same style of Pacific palm fringed paradise.  We would have liked to visit perhaps one more small atoll, but time was marching on and our guests were waiting in Tahiti.