CAPTAIN’S LOG The Tuamotus
June 3 to June 28, 2014
The Tuamotus is an archipelago made up of 77 atolls. Each atoll is composed of a circle of motus or islets made of coral sand and rock perched on the rim of an ancient volcano and enclosing a lagoon. The motus are barren except for coconuts and breadfruit trees, and have a maximum elevation of about ten feet above the sea. The only source of fresh water on these islets is rainwater. There are no fruits or vegetables on these atolls, nor are there any indigenous animals. There is almost no known history to these islands, but it is thought that human beings first came here from the Marquesas in 1000 AD. The motus enclose a lagoon, the largest of which is about 20 miles in diameter. The atolls are very beautiful and enclose a wealth of sea life that is relatively easy to access and provide some of the best dive sites in the world. In cruising near the Tuamotus one is struck by the contrasting color of the deep blue indigo ocean, the light sand the motu shore, the green of the coconut palms, the aqua color of the lagoons, and the clouds sailing across the light blue sky.
Passage to the Tuamotus
We left the beautiful anchorage at Fatu Hiva at 1030 headed for Fakarava 540 miles southeast, one of the more popular and larger atolls in the archipelago. The seas were calm for the first couple of hours, then we passed outside the shelter of Fatu Hiva and the swells built and built until we were in high, combing seas of ten to fifteen feet. Waves of this size are really large and quite intimidating. Argo did nicely, but Lyle was green and seasick and spent most of the next two days and nights on the couch in the salon trying to remain as quiet as possible. The rest of us had varying degrees of mal de mar, but we were in pretty good shape. After fifteen hours of somewhat miserable conditions, I began to consider alternatives to lessen our discomfort. After a group discussion, we decided to alter to a less strenuous course and go to the little atoll named Ahe. Just then the hydraulic alarm sounded indicating an overheating situation. This is a critical problem for Argo as she needs her stabilizers to maintain her posture, otherwise she would roll uncontrollably in these seas. It was pitch dark and the swells were huge. Gus and Rebecca stood by the doors to the pilothouse trying to see the exact direction of the waves so that I could be sure to point her into them and avoid as much as possible rolling violently from side to side. Tyler, who was now awake, rushed to the engine room to look at the impeller on the hydraulic cooling pump. We had changed it in Panama, so he knew exactly what to do. In an amazingly short period of time he had it replaced and we resumed our course in comfort and confidence. After things were repaired, he brought the defective impeller up to the pilothouse and I could see that it seemed to have over heated; strange for something that should be pumping water. On our new course to Ahe the angle to the swells improved and things got a little better. After a couple of hours Lyle started to come around and everyone seemed to perk up as the waves were still huge, but their moment lengthened allowing Argo to ride up and down rather than roll sideways off them.
On the third day we began to feel better and almost enjoy the cruise when the hydraulic alarm sounded again (36 hours later). This was an unwelcomed surprise. Once again we had a potentially serious problem on our hands. Thankfully it was daylight and the waves were somewhat better for dealing with this problem. I turned Argo into the waves again and Tyler and Gus flew to the engine room. Tyler checked out the strainer and then the impeller. The strainer was clear, but all the blades of the impeller had been sheared off. We looked for an obvious reason for this unusual part failure, but nothing seemed apparent. We replaced the impeller and things returned to normal, for a while. We talked about the problem and concluded that the sea water strainer had begun to rust. It looked as though small bits of it could have broken loose and made their way into the impeller shearing off the rubber blades, although this was unlikely. (Later, after consultation with experts, we learned that Globe Impellers can weaken over time. The impellers we recently purchased were probably defective, leading to their failure. No more Globe Impellers for us!). By 0630 we were close to Ahe and looking forward to anchoring in a calm harbor.
Getting into atolls can be difficult and most have only one entry pass or channel. In the case of Ahe, its entry pass was very narrow (maybe 50 feet), very shallow (13 feet), surrounded by coral shelves, subject to very swift currents at tidal changes (9 knots), and requiring mid-channel turns. The ocean near Ahe is over 18,000 feet deep and rises almost straight up to the motus or islands that make up the atoll like beads on a necklace. Once inside the atoll the lagoon is comparatively shallow, crystal clear, and a beautiful turquoise color. The motus are white sand islands covered in coconut palms. Some of the motus have houses on them and the lagoon near them is dotted with buoys that are attached to oyster beds that are used to cultivate the famous Tahitian black pearls. The Ahe lagoon is about 16 miles long by 8 miles wide. At one end is a little village with a government dock at which we moored. It was the first time since leaving Shelter Bay Marina in Panama that Argo was in a calm anchorage.
The village was home to a couple hundred people. They started showing up at the dock when we arrived: kids in swimsuits or underwear, adults riding three wheeled bikes, men interested in boats, the local gendarme and several transvestites. The village had two streets and an intersection. The homes were small bungalows on paved streets surrounded by tropical plants and flowers, and each had a rainwater collection system for drinking water. There was a Catholic Church and a Mormon Temple of sorts and the only restaurant was a hamburger stand that for $13 provided fries, a burger, and a drink (the voracious flies were complimentary!).
The first day in port we rested and took a swim off our swim platform. Tyler dove Argo’s bottom to see if anything was clogging the water intake for the hydraulic cooling pump or the water maker. His report: all was in apple pie order! Our conclusion is that the problems with the water maker and the cooling pump are the result of cavitation caused by turbulent seas. This causes air to be sucked into the pumps, lessening their effectiveness. The proposed solution is to install scoop strainers to the hull at our next haul out, which would force water into the intakes when we are underway and lessen or eliminate the problem.
The second day we took an eight mile excursion across the lagoon to the lovely Pension Chez Riata for lunch. When we arrived, Riata was standing on the white sand beach, ukulele in hand singing Polynesian songs that she recorded in her youth (CDs anyone?). The scene was picture postcard perfect.
Lunch was served after a refreshment of fresh lemonade and fried banana chips. Riata and her husband, Willy, told us about their life on Ahe and their travels. They come to the United States each year to visit relatives and for shopping and skiing: she shops, he skis. Lunch began with an appetizer of thinly sliced pearl oysters marinated in garlic, oil, and lime served on an oyster shell. These shells are rather flat and about eight inches in diameter, not like the typical New England variety. The entre’ was fresh white fish sautéed in bread crumbs and coconut, accompanied with bread fruit, green beans, and a nice White Bordeaux. Dessert was a fabulous yellow cake with a vanilla cream center and chocolate glaze frosting. Rebecca doesn’t eat much, but she did eat that!
The next day, Sunday, we had hoped to move up the lagoon to anchor at Chez Riata, but unfortunately a squall line came through and it rained torrentially all day. We tried playing cards, but soon migrated to watching movies. The next day, Monday, the sky cleared and we got underway at 0630 for Rangiroa 75 miles to the south. We tried fishing, but only succeeded in losing a couple of lures and catching the fattest Skip-Jack we ever saw. It was a pleasant cruise, if not productive, and we arrived in Rangiroa about 1800.
Prior to entering a harbor we study the navigation charts carefully, obtain tide information, and talk with others who have been there–sailors if possible. Prior to coming to Rangiroa we learned that the 125 foot French Customs Military boat (made of steel with a picture on www.tischtravels.com) hit a reef nearby and sank. This was very unsettling. Our charts showed the path to Rangiroa as a rhumbline course through the very narrow Tiputa Pass, which required several turns in a narrow channel to avoid reefs. We approached the pass at 1800 hours. The sun was setting, it was getting dark rapidly, and in order to make a safe passage we needed light to see the banks of the channel. Time was of the essence. From the pilot house we could see a channel between two motus with white water and high surf rolling in from the ocean to the mouth of the channel. The chart showed the channel to be surrounded by reefs and subject to strong currents. Because the surf was high I judged that the current was outflowing, which was favorable to our entry because it would aid our steering if it wasn’t too strong (more water flowing past the rudder makes the rudder answer up faster causing the yacht to turn more responsively). We proceeded nervously, judging that we still had enough light to see the banks of the channel. Argo’s bow began to lurch from port to starboard as the swells pushed her from one side to the other. She was pitching up and down about eight feet as the waves rolled under her. I didn’t fight the movement from the helm, but let her move in a natural manner. As we moved forward the side to side movement increased, but we seemed to have steerageway, so I maintained about 7 knots speed and hoped that we would stay online without exerting additional force which might result in a lot of unproductive maneuvering. Slowly we moved forward and finally we began to leave the swell zone, mindful of the waves crashing on the reef to either side. As the waves subsided our speed fell off rapidly; we had entered the narrow zone where the outgoing current is confined and focused. As our speed dropped I increased our RPMs so as to maintain steerageway. The current was so strong that 2100 rpms (which would normally move us at ten knots) was now propelling us at just under four and a half knots. This was another tense moment. We had the wing engine and thrusters ready to use if we lost headway, but after a very long two minutes we began to gain speed against the apparent six knot current. Tyler was on the bow pulpit looking for coral heads. When our speed reached six knots I began to ease back on the power so that we could make a 45o turn to port and not over run the turn and slide into the next reef. Argo didn’t turn easily because of the current and I couldn’t be sure of the accuracy of our charts in such a confined space, but in due course we made the turn, we were past the reef and safely inside the atoll. By then it was pitch dark. We could see the mast lights of several boats at anchor, and we began to look for a suitable place to drop our anchor. Not all sailboats turn on their masthead lights, so I turned on our night vision to try and see them in the dark.
Special skills are required when anchoring in an atoll or near coral formations. The sea floor can be spotted with coral heads and rock piles. If you anchor near any of these obstructions, the anchor chain can become entangled or wrapped around them as the boat turns in the wind. If a swell forms and rolls under the boat it can raise the forecastle and potentially damage the boat if the chain holds it firm and makes it impossible for the yacht to answer the sea state. In the case of Rangiroa there is a twenty mile fetch across the atoll, so large waves were possible under certain wind conditions. The recommended way of dealing with this problem is to lay out extra scope, buoyed by a float so as to isolate the boat from a chain that is caught on a coral head.
We used our sonar to identify an area without coral heads and wound up anchoring in 75 feet of water. We laid out 450 ft. of chain and then enjoyed one of Rebecca’s masterpieces of galley fare: a wonderful dinner of scallops, risotto and bok choy with a lovely White Bordeaux followed by rum bananas and ice cream for dessert.
The Rangiroa Atoll is about 75 miles in circumference and encloses the second largest lagoon in the world. It has the largest village in the Tuamotus and is also one of the world’s top dive sites. Many divers from around the world come here, particularly Japanese divers, to experience the coral reefs at the two passes, Tiputa and Avatoru. (The Japanese divers are the ones with large and exotic underwater cameras and multiple electronic gadgets attached to their arms and dive suits.) These reefs are large, in good condition, and home to an amazingly large variety of sea life including tuna, sharks and dolphins. Inside of Tiputa Pass is a large lagoon reef that we circled on our way into the atoll. It is situated in quiet water and perfect for beginner divers. The locals call it “The Aquarium”, and for good reason; it is full of colorful fish of many species including lemon sharks, barracudas, and moray eels. Gus, Lyle, Rebecca and I took our initial scuba qualification dives here shortly after we arrived.
The Tuamotus are coral motus or islets and have no native edible plants other than coconut and breadfruit. Fruits and vegetables are scarce. Onboard we have stored fruit found in other parts of French Polynesia including a grapefruit like fruit called a pamplemousse. This fruit is about two or three times the size of a grapefruit, but sweeter. It’s delicious. There are a few restaurants here that offer wonderful fresh fish and New Zealand lamb and beef. The one thing I have particularly enjoyed is tuna ceviche salad prepared in coconut milk. It is heavenly.
The beaches are coral rock and sand, not really suitable for swimming. They are lined with coconut palms. The water is crystal clear with the color ranging from turquoise to indigo to cerulean blue. It is absolutely gorgeous. Besides tourism, the Tuamotus are home to the black pearl industry. We toured a pearl farm located just west of us that has over two million oysters under cultivation. During our visit they operated on oysters and showed us how a blank seed (obtained from muscles raised in the Mississippi River) is inserted in the appendix of an oyster and how they graft another piece of an appendix from a sacrificial oyster to start the process of culturing a pearl. It was very interesting and of course they had a show room with plenty of inventory.
Tyler’s objective since beginning this voyage has been to become a Master Diver, and to that end he has been diving almost every day. One of his dives was on the outside reef at Tiputa Pass where a number of dolphins are known to come in from the sea every afternoon. During an afternoon dive, one of them approached Tyler, rolled onto its back and closed its eyes while he stroked its stomach. The dolphin stayed with him for a couple of minutes until an older dolphin, perhaps its mother, urged it back to the pack and they all swam out to sea together. While Rebecca and I were diving the reef earlier in the day, we saw several dolphins including one mother with baby, which was thrilling. That experience made us feel as though we were part of the whole panoply of sea life. While we were hovering in the current at a depth of about 75 feet and enjoying the dolphins, below us at 125 feet or so was a very large school of several hundred fish, perhaps Maori Perch or Bream. There we saw several beautiful, spectacular, silver darts in the sea; white and black tip sharks cruising outside the school of fish and occasionally darting through them. When a shark did so the whole school scattered like sparrows on the wind. As we drifted along and past this area of the reef, I must admit to looking behind and over my shoulder to see if any sharks were following; an unavoidable consequence of being part of the Jaws generation.
The nearest motu to our anchorage has a very nice hotel located on it, the Kia Ora, which features Polynesian style huts and bungalows with thatched roofs, some built over the turquoise blue lagoon, others in a village configuration. It is a Polynesian paradise for sure and just the sort of place that is featured in everyone’s dreams of the South Pacific. Our friends, Gus and Lyle, treated us to three days in one of these splendid over-the-water bungalows at the end of their visit on Argo. It was just what we needed after a long voyage, and a very generous gift indeed! We were particularly grateful to be at the Kia Ora as it had been about ten weeks since we had been in a first class restaurant with a bar. After three days at Kia Ora, we bade a fond farewell to our good friends and returned home to Argo. When we arrived back aboard Argo she was shinier than new. Tyler had taken this three day respite at anchor as an opportunity to wax and clean her after months of sea time. She looked beautiful. At this point, after five months underway she is the only motor yacht we have seen in the South Pacific.
We stood out from Rangiroa at 0730 Sunday morning June 22 bound for Tikehau, a small atoll about twenty miles west of Rangiroa. We made Tiputa Pass at slack tide and enjoyed a glorious passage to Tikehau. The sky was clear, the weather calm, and the day was perhaps the best of our cruise so far. A few minutes out of the pass we were joined by a pod of the largest dolphins we have ever seen. They swam toward Argo and jumped high in the air as if to celebrate finding us and to announce their presence. Several of them were perhaps eight or nine feet long and three or four hundred pounds. They were fabulous animals and a joy to see!
Tikehau is a small atoll like Ahe, but known as a great dive spot. Its most famous dive site is inside the lagoon and is a Manta Ray “cleaning station” where Mantas come to have resident fish clean them of parasites.
We made Passe Tuheiava at slack tide and the passage through it was straight forward and uneventful. We turned south in the lagoon, went about six miles to Village Tuherahera, home to a couple of pensions, a luxury hotel similar to Kia Ora, and a dive shop. We called the dive shop and arranged two dives at the pass for the following morning.
At 0830 sharp the next morning (Monday) a dive boat arrived and took Tyler and me first to the reef inside the lagoon to see if any Manta Rays were in for a cleaning; unfortunately they were not. Then we went outside the pass for two dives, one on each side of the channel. The water was 83 degrees with a brilliant blue sky overhead, no wind, and a sea as calm as a mill pond. We donned our scuba tanks and fell back off the aluminum boat into the sea. Suddenly we were practically weightless and enjoying the illusion of flying over the coral reef. As we descended to 93 feet we could see large schools of fish including Big Eye Tuna, Maori Perch, Jacks, Snappers, Barracuda, thousands of tropical fish of every imaginable color and configuration, a large White Tip Shark, and a huge emerald green and blue, domed head Napoleon fish that surely weighed in at 100 lbs and just casually floated past looking at us curiously. It was glorious. We arrived back at Argo at 1400 and enjoyed a lunch on the back deck. Rebecca had stayed aboard and accomplished most of the items on her list: doing six loads of laundry, baking a couple dozen cookies, cleaning the shower, and miscellaneous other tasks. She is a doer!
On Tuesday a squall line moved through and brought with it wind and rain, so we stayed onboard. On Wednesday cabin fever got the best of us and we took the tender to town despite the squalls. The Village Tuherahera covers most of a small motu. It looked like home to about 1,000 people. The roads are nicely paved, the homes are a sort of bungalow ranch style and placed on about a half-acre of land. Some have windows, others are just open to the breeze. Many are surrounded by beautiful tropical flowering plants. There are two Catholic churches with large buildings for social events. Everyone seems to have a car, truck, or motor bike which seemed surprising to us given that the motu couldn’t be more than two miles long and a few hundred yards wide. Anyway, everyone has a vehicle. Fanny, our dive instructor, told me that since there is no gasoline station on the motu, people ship their gasoline in from Tahiti in drums. They need a truck to carry the barrels from the dock to their boats. There are a couple of small restaurants, but they keep irregular hours so no one knows when they are open unless they call the proprietor on the phone (if it is working). The village has a tiny grocery, but it has no fresh vegetables or fruit. I don’t know what people eat here, but I do know that seafood gets a little boring after a couple of weeks. There are no shops or stores for any other products; I suppose people go to Papeete by plane if they need something, which is 170 mile due south of here. Maybe they order by phone or on the very slow internet and have it shipped via the weekly supply ship that comes here. Roosters strut about and crow all the time, and large eared dogs are everywhere. Vacationers from Europe are the most frequent visitors. There are no bars or other forms of entertainment, but there are a couple of pensions that cater to the tourists. So it isn’t much of a place for a single person; honeymooners on the other hand, flock here. The motu has three things going for it: beautiful pink coral beaches, magnificent sunsets, and lovely dive sights. If you are looking for a place to vacation that’s away from it all, and I mean all, Tikehau is it!
On Thursday another squall line was passing through. In the Tikehau Atoll, waves have a fetch of about ten miles, so they can build to a muscular size in 30 + knot winds. Winds reached 30 MPH on Thursday and the waves at this end of the atoll reached about four feet. Argo pitched and pulled, but her anchor held firm. Our dingy rode the surf behind Argo and rose above our transom on the waves, which is saying something.
Friday was our lucky day. The sun rose and presented us with a beautiful day; gone was the wind and rain. Fanny, the charming and pretty French dive instructor, came by around 0900 with a dive boat full of tourists. She picked us up from Argo and took us to two wonderful dive spots. The first one was a coral head in the lagoon that Manta Rays frequent to have parasites removed by Remoras and other fish. Rebecca and I fell off the boat into an amazing primordial scene: huge Manta Rays with wings eight or ten feet across were floating above us over the reef. Their top side is black and their underside is white. They have wide set eyes placed on the end of protruding limbs on either side of its mouth, and below the limbs and eyes are articulating flaps that they use to cover their mouth or guide food. In this case they guided juvenile fish of a specie common on the reef into their huge, gaping mouth, and the little fish went about their business of cleaning their mouth, eyes, and gills. The little fish formed a ball of dense black living organisms within the Manta Ray. The Manta moved slowly through the water so as not to dislodge the little critters. Under the great fish were Remoras, members of the shark family that have a sucker apparatus on the top of their heads. They were cleaning the Manta’s underside. Rebecca and I gazed transfixed at the scene we were privileged to witness and wondered: For how many millions of years has this been going on?
Our second dive was on Buoy Reef, just the outside of the pass. The water here is crystal clear and full of sea life, certainly among the best dive spots in the world. This was Rebecca’s first dive here. On today’s dive we saw a White Tip Shark, which was intimidating and attention getting as it swam close enough to give us a good look before abruptly turning and heading away (thank God). We also saw a Manta Ray on this reef, which was quit lovely. Two dangerous animals also got our attention. First was a Rock Fish, which was hiding in a hole on the reef. They are very difficult to see as they hide deep in a crevasse and are so well camouflaged that you can’t tell them from a rock. They sport deadly spines to keep unwelcomed visitors at bay, and they have a tongue that looks like a little fish to attract dinner guests to their table. The other animal we saw was a Morey Eel; always a little disturbing (I suppose because it is hard to relate to them and they have teeth)!
After the dive we returned to Argo and prepared to stand out for Papeete, Tahiti, 167 miles to the south. It was a beautiful day for a cruise; bright sunshine, a cloudless sky, a following 8 knot wind and 3 foot sea. We don’t get enough days like this! We started to raise the anchor, but the chain had apparently gotten caught on a coral head. We worked on it for ten or fifteen minutes and I thought Tyler might have to make a dive on the anchor, but by maneuvering the boat around and pulling as hard as seemed prudent, it eventually came loose and we were underway. On the way out we deployed our fishing lines in the hopes of catching something in the pass. Shortly after we cleared the pass and turned on our course, King Neptune offered up a beautiful Mahi-Mahi.
The passage to Papeete is an overnight run. Rebecca and I take the evening watch from 1800 to 0000. Tyler takes the night watch from 0000 to 0700. I take the 0700 to 1200, Tyler and I take turns as it suits us on the afternoon watch. We all enjoy the night sky at sea which is unlike any on land, and the night sky in the South Pacific is positively spellbinding. Out here the unobstructed vista, clear atmosphere, and lack of light pollution allows us to see things we would never otherwise see. For example you can see the whole Milky Way down the middle of the sky with the relatively less occupied parts of the universe on either side. The stars themselves are dazzling, brilliant and so clear as to light the heavens like an outdoor Christmas tree on a frosty winter’s evening. We always look for the beautiful Southern Cross. Often we see falling stars and satellites passing over. At Fatu Hiva Gus and I saw the International Space Station fly by at tremendous speed. Last night Rebecca and I laid on the forecastle and gazed aloft at the trillions of tiny and not so tiny bodies shining down on us. We saw several meteors entering our atmosphere, two in particular will stay in my mind’s eye; one was huge, like a comet that flashed across the sky with a tail and then disappeared, the other a streak that ended in a tiny red ball. Of course for the whole of human history up to about 1930 people looked at the night sky in wonderment and awe. Since the invention of electricity and television, no one looks anymore, and besides, it can hardly be seen given the light pollution. As Argo plies the water she rolls back the sea and atop the white foam are tiny star like sparkles of phosphorescent plankton spreading out around us. It is nights like this that I am so glad we made the decision to undertake cruising on Argo.
This morning, Saturday, we are at sea about 35 miles out of Tahiti. The sea is calm and it isn’t much of a day for sailboaters as the wind is only 5 knots. All our doors are open and a lovely breeze is blowing through the boat. I have two lines out, but the ocean is very deep here and since I do not see any birds, I doubt that there is anything to catch in these parts. We will make Papeete in a few hours and I can see the great mountains of Tahiti from here.
We will tie up at Marina Tiana, a focal point this time of year for sailors making the passage across the Pacific. If the internet has sufficient bandwidth in Papeete, I hope to upload some new photos of The Galapagos, The Marquesas, and The Tuamotus.
Rebecca and I hope you are having a lovely summer and that fair winds are to your backside.
Thanks for looking in on us.
Randy and Rebecca