June 17, 2011

Archipel’s Des Tuamotu #FrenchPolynesia

Daria and I set sail on the 6th of May for the 500 mile passage to the Tuamotu’s from the island of Nuku Hiva.  We left with perfect conditions making good time with sails pulling us along at over 8 knots.  The fishing was amazing during the passage. We landed 5 nice size tuna’s on our way and finally just put the poles up with a freezer full of fish.  Strangely we only saw one other boat during the passage, a idle trawler that had no signs of life aboard?  On the last day of the 3 day passage the wind dropped and we motored our way into Makemo our first atoll.  

The Tuamotu’s are a group of 78 islands that are coral atolls which spread across 150 degrees of longitude for almost 1000 miles in a NW-SE direction.  A atoll is the coral reef that at some time surrounded a volcanic island that has since settled back into the sea.  It is hard to believe that islands can just disappear, but over millions of years I guess it is possible?  The Tuamotu’s are some of the oldest atoll’s in the Pacific. Islands like Hawaii are some of the youngest, some now just  forming reefs around them and even with active volcanoes forming new islands.

These dangerous atolls have claimed many a passing ship.  They have jagged low lying reefs and  are only visible from about  8 miles, with the highest points being coconut trees on the northern sides.  The southern sides are mostly breaking waves and rocky reefs , hardly visible until you are 1 mile away.  It was not until recently with the security of GPS navigation that cruisers have really started to visit these atolls.  The atolls usually have just one or two navigable inlets to enter them by, these are usually narrow passes with strong currents at times rushing up to 7 knots!  Entering some inlets it is wise to do so only at slack tide with the sun high over head to avoid the dangerous currents and corral heads.   Once inside the lagoon the waters are relatively flat and the ocean swell is calmed by the surrounding reef.  Some atolls are over 48 miles long and 15 miles wide, and you feel like the only person on the face of the earth while you sail across them.  But beware, once inside the lagoon the dangers are not over, rising up  from the bottom which is an average of 90 to 120 feet are giant coral heads (motu’s)  that grow from the floor to just below the surface!  You have to be on constant watch to avoid crashing into them.  It helps to have the sun high over head, calm waters and a good pair of sunglasses to navigate safely around them.

Motoring into Makemo was very exciting!  The current was rushing out at 4 knots creating large, steep waves across the inlet.  We had the motors pushing hard just to make 4 knots of forward progress, then just as we approached the channel entrance dolphins started jumping out of the face of the steep waves flying through the air and landing with a big splash!!  They were having so much fun jumping all around the boat, they were like our own welcoming committee. The water really flows fast out of this inlet due to this atoll being one of the larger ones, about 40 miles long by 10 miles wide.

Safely through the channel we made a right turn and lowered the anchor in front of the small village of Pouheva.  The village of just 300 people had a few small shops and a beautiful church in the center.  That afternoon we watched the weekly freight ship unloading its cargo near by.  They still bring fuel here in 55 gallon drums and unload them 2 or 3 at time from the ship with a big crane onto the wharf.  The supply boat’s deck has a little of everything stacked on it from somebody’s new boat to a pickup truck for delivery to another island.  Bundles of supplies get lowered to the dock and the villagers are there to haul them to town.  Later some workmen drove a backhoe out to the wharf to load a flatbed with  barrels of jet fuel and diesel , With the truck loaded they drove off towards the airport.  Most of the fuel they bring to the island is used to run the generator, which operated all the time we were there.

After a quick walk around the small town the next morning we motored to the S-W side of the atoll 10 miles away in search of  smoother water and a good kite surfing location.   There were two other boats somewhere in this vast atoll that we heard on the radio and later that day we met one, a boat from Canada.  We anchored along a beautiful coconut tree covered shore in 40 feet of  calm clear blue water.  It has been my luck with kite surfing  that just when I get to the perfect spot the wind dies…this spot was no different!  3 knots more wind please!!!! 

We lowered SD ( Super Dink) into the water and set off to explore!!  There is nothing I enjoy more than driving SD around with a few cold beers in the cooler exploring new places!!  We drove to the far end of the atoll, the point where  the trees and land end and the reef begins, motoring slowly through the shallow clear blue water. Sadly here unlike in the Bahamas, the beaches are not soft white sand, they are a hard rough corral and impossible to walk on with out shoes.   On our return, half way back to the boat we saw a shack built in the tree lined coast and stopped by to say hello, “Bonjour” here MY Bad!!

This shack turned out to be an amazing place with thousands of shells displayed along with everything else that had washed ashore in  the past 10 years.  There were fishing floats and nets hanging from the trees and upside down beer bottles and sea shells lining the paths.  Driftwood was artistically arranged into beautiful works of art.  The guy who lived there was really friendly and opened a few refreshing coco nuts  for us to drink while we did our best to talk with him in French.  We were able to trade a hat, tee shirt and some beers for 20 more coco nuts.  His place looked like it could be used for local parties with several tables and  lots of room to lounge around on the beach.  He had a small kitchen and a place to sleep covered with tin that looked to be as old as I am.  On our way back to Downtime we stopped by the Canadian boat and said hello then shared a few stories and a beer before having a quiet diner on Downtime.

The next day we sailed toward the N-E side of the atoll with 15 knots of wind and met the another boat along our way.  Raiatea was an American boat and later that evening we all had cold beers and a nice seafood risotto dinner aboard Downtime.  

On the 14th of May we departed for  Makemo out of the N-E pass and surprisingly caught two fish on our way our.  One fish was a blue spotted grouper and the other some kind of parrot fish., both  of which we threw back since we did not know if they were safe to eat.  We had our sails trimmed and course set for  Katiu just 16 miles away in a brisk breeze.  An hour later, about half the way there we saw a big flock of birds feeding on the surface and steered a course through them. Within minutes two of the rods were screaming!! Tight lines again!!  Jib furled, motor on Daria at the helm and Pedro reeling in some big Skipjack Tunas!!  Oh what a day!! 

With the fish cleaned and the sails stowed we carefully navigated into Pakata Pass.  This pass was really narrow and the charts were somewhat vague as to how deep it really was?  As we slowly motored into the pass some locals waved us to their pier, a nice 100 foot concrete dock with big rubber fenders to protect the boat.  They helped us tie off and we gave them Downtime hats and one of the 40 pound Skipjack that we caught on our way over.  Every one was so grateful for the fish and hats and they later brought us some gifts in return, a dish of local banana cakes, a beautiful conch shell and a amazing handmade necklace braided with many beautiful shells.  Then the villages kids showed up to the boat and we gave them all Downtime tee shirts, toys and candy (Bom-Bom) . The kids here were all very polite and well mannered,  they were so much fun and later walked around and showed us their village.   That afternoon Daria and I explored the inside of the small lagoon in SD.  The weather was 85 degrees on a windless day, the water was a crystal clear like a sheet of glass, as clear as any we had ever seen. We drove up to several  of the large motus  in the lagoon and did not even need to put on a mask! We could see all of colorful fish and even  the bottom some 70 feet down from inside SD!  At the far end was another small pass with a few homes built right over the water, one proudly displaying the catch of the day, a nice size white marlin.

The next morning was Sunday and at least 10 kids met us at the boat to take us to their church, which again was all in Tahitian, but it was still a great experience.  Sunday afternoon we all  had a boat party and all the kids got to see inside of Downtime and eat lots of cookies and candies.  Fifteen kids were running and jumping on Downtimes trampolines, and then jumping off the back of the boat all wired up on sugar!!   The kids would keep asking for more bom-bom??? At 5 that after noon we had to shut the party down and everyone went home happy with a piece of booty pirate treasure out of Downtime’s treasure chest.

Monday morning we set off for Tuanake,  but the east wind had other plans for us so we turned west to Fakarava some 50 miles away.  This was one of those days the wind was a little feisty, starting of at 15 knots and building from there.  We had a single reefed main up and the jib out pulling Downtime along over 9 knots.  It never fails that just when you get a big 25 knot gust and the boat really gets moving the fish like to bite, today was a day like that. Things were smooth sailing along the island, Daria was below taking a shower we had 4 fishing lines out the back just cruising along.  I saw a big black cloud coming our way and called Daria up to help put another reef the main, knowing the winds were going to build.  Then about the same time the gust hit us three of the fishing poles bent over hard at the same time!  We must had gone through a school a big tuna!!   I let the lines spool out with the drag set while we slowed the boat even more and then the fight was on!!  The first  fish violently jerking  pole as  I set the drag and snapping the 120 pound line!!  I took it slower with the second pole and just about landed the fish then it darted under the boat and cut the line on the rudder.  I saw the huge fish swim past me while I was on the back step with the gaff in my hand, she showed herself for just for a second,  a monstrous 90  plus pound yellow fin tuna over 4 feet long!!   By now I was tired and frustrated with two fish lost…I took my time on the last fish that was still on the third pole,  after  fighting fish for an hour I was tired and these fish do not give up easily.  I was 30 minutes into the last fish when again we just about had it to the boat and the 120 pound leader snapped!!!  Wow these were some big fish!!   I guess we need heavier fishing gear on Downtime!!

The winds stayed brisk and we made good time charging though 6 to 8 foot seas on our way to Fakarava.  It is amazing when everything is going right on a sailboat, you are  harnessing all that wind energy to make a forty thousand pound boat move efficiently\through the water.  With just  motors running we could only make 8 knots, burning fuel with two 75 HP Yanmar diesels, but with the right sail combination Downtime can go up to 13 knots!!  That takes a lot of energy, I estimate about 400 plus Hp from an engine to go that fast!! 
After eating a nice lunch and a experiencing great sailing conditions Fakarava appeared on the horizon.  During the sail I had re-rigged the poles, tying on fresh baits and had them trailing behind the boat again..  Four miles from the atoll one rod was hit, screaming out line!  I knew this was a big fish by the way the line was going out!!  What?  I had no idea, but it was BIG!! 

30 minutes into the fight the fish finally showed itself to be a  big Marlin!!  Whoo hoooo!! Another marlin!!!  This fish was very  lively and put on quite a show for us, jumping high out of the water thrashing its body into the air.  We almost had the fish to the boat when it must have seen us and turned around and stripped out line with great power.  I was just able to slow it down before it leapt out of the water again, this time thrashing and severing the line with it’s abrasive bill.  It then jumped high out of the water one last time looking at me with a look in his eye saying” Not this time Capt. Pedro”!  Oh what a day fishing!!  Not much catching but the fights were amazing!!

We entered Tumakohua Pass on the south end of the atoll while the sun was setting with just enough light to get the anchor down and to settle in for the night in 40 feet of water.  Ok, so you have been reading my stories for a while, now can you remember the name of one atoll or pass?  I am telling you these names are hard to remember! 

Fakarava would turn out to be our favorite atoll with so many reef  fish and sharks to see, this is where  we took the shark video that’s on face book. 

We woke in Fakarava  to another beautiful day in paradise and decided to go for a dive in the pass.  This would be a drift dive on a incoming tide in 100 feet of water with sharks!!  Daria was dive certified in Roatan, but had not had much experience since, so she did some practice behind Downtime to get her comfortable again.  This was not very easy when several sharks were swimming all around the boat.  We have dive gear on Downtime and are able to fill our own tanks and can dive anywhere, but diving is like snow skiing, you have to put on way too much gear and then go have fun.  We loaded all the gear into SD and drove to the pass.  We suited up and splashed over the side holding on to a long rope tied to SD and began our drift dive.  In a few minutes and less than  20 feet down  we started seeing sharks!! Lots of sharks!!  Like 100’s of them!!  I have seen a few sharks on dives before but nothing like this!!  This was amazing!!  100’s of black tip  reef sharks from 2 to 5 feet long swimming 10 to 30 feet away from you.  I heard a story  that a week before that a  big Hammerhead shark came into the pass and ate a black tip right in front of a diver! What a site that must have been! 

Later that afternoon we met a couple anchored next to us on a tri-maran, Rayne and Alexia from Austria. We shared stories and gave them a nice piece of the tuna we had caught earlier from the freezer.  The next morning we invited them along and all went for another dive in  the pass with the sharks.  The dive was again amazing with all those sharks swimming around us,  at the end I let go of the line a drifted a mile back to Downtime while the others stayed with SD.   Back at the boat we had some lunch and fed the fish scraps of the back steps.  There were lots of reef fish here, more than any other atoll or island that we had been to.  There was even one giant Napoleon fish three feet long with a huge mouth that came up and ate some crumbs!! That looked a little like Angelina Joule J  The sharks would not eat the bits of bread but once you threw in some pieces of fish they went wild like in the video on face book.

After two exciting days of diving we sailed 14 miles across the atoll to the village of Hitiamaa, another small village with a few pearl shops and markets.  We were lucky enough  while we were there to meet the group of  reproduction proa’s .  A group of 6 reproduction Tahitian catamarans that are making the trip from New Zeeland to Hawaii, like they did in the old days.  These newly built boats have traditional sails, solar power and electric drives to help them navigate the tight passes. There is a modern galley with a stove and  bathroom in a small enclosure forward on deck.  Behind the galley is a small covered area and some small bunks in the hulls for the crew of 16 to sleep in.  It takes three men at a time to hand steer the15 foot tiller all those miles.

We left Fakarava on the 19th  and sailed to the small atoll of Toau just 10 miles away. We anchored just inside the Pass Otugi  in a remote anchorage all to ourselves.  The wind was strong and the next day and I finally was able to kite surf after so much waiting for the conditions to be right.  For me to kite I need at least 15 knots of wind that is like 17 MPH to get the kite to fly.  I fly a 16 Sq. meter kite most days and use a big 165 cm board, if the wind is not strong enough I am not able to get out of the water and just drift downwind.  When the conditions are just right the kite flies strong and pulls me right out of the water just like a boat would, and then I am able to stay up wind and return to where I started from.  I usually have Daria in SD when I am kiting in remote areas and when I am finished we deflate the kite and load the gear in SD.  This day I  had plans to kite to the far end of the atoll some 15 miles away.  We launched the kite from the rocky shore in front of Downtime and I was off,  kite surfing down the lagoon of a deserted atoll knowing I was surfing above lots of sharks!!  I kited in clear blue water over sandy bottoms avoiding many coral heads along my way in the shallow water.  The wind was good for about two hours and then died of leaving me drifting downwind, I had only made it about 5 miles and Daria had to pick me up. We loaded the kite into SD and continued down the atoll exploring in in calm conditions.

Driving several more miles down the atoll the only interesting place we saw way was a shutdown pearl farm.  Many of the atolls used to have hundreds of people working the pearl industry, now there are just a few in operation.  Pearls like many other industries these past few years have gone down in value, a good pearl today is only $30,  not really worth the effort to harvest them….  And just like many other industries they were too efficient making pearls and the market was flooded with poor quality mass produced pearls.  Gone are the days when a pearl is a natural wonder, today’s pearls are farmed.  They grow an oyster and seed them first, then they check the progress, if the pearl is not round and true they remove it and put in a round ball made in Louisiana from oyster shells.  The oyster then continues layering the ball to make a pearl.  A good oysters can do this 4 or 5 times.  A bad , non producing one, well, they are put on the local menu!!  When prices are good they go through thousands of oysters to farm pearls.  After seeding the oysters they take them to the lagoon and hang then in 10 to 70 feet of water in mesh bags  attached to marker buoys by the tens of thousands, checking them periodically.  It takes years to grow pearls this way and still only 30 percent yield pearls of any quality.

The next atoll  we visited was just 10 miles to the NW and called Apataki.  The pass was well marked and easy to navigate but the available anchorages were limited to anchoring behind a small motu “corral head” just inside the lagoon.  This did not give us much protection from the SE winds and it was a little bumpy during the night.  The following day we tied up to the wharf and visited small Village of Niuahi.  During our walk  around  town we gave out tee shirts and bom-bom to the kids and we were in turn given fresh coconuts to drink.  There were not as many kids as in Katiu and the locals were busy with the French government inspection.  Being there on inspection day we were able to see and amazingly clean town.  We just saw one dog and pig that were really out of line, we took a picture to show you!

We decided to get out of Apataki!!  We cast of the dock lines around 4 :00pm the afternoon of the 24th for a 100 miles overnight passage to Rangaroa, our next atoll.  The winds were steady and we had following seas, which made for good sailing.  During an overnight passage I usually just take little naps and wake up and have a good look around.  We have our AIS (automatic identification system) on which broadcasts our ships position and receives other boats positions on the navigation screen.  Really good stuff!  We set the alarm so that if another boat gets within two miles the alarm goes off.  We only saw one other boat that night “Storm Haven” a trawler whom we met in Fakarava following 5 miles behind us.  During the night the weather deteriorated and by early morning it was pouring rain and the skies were grey.  We arrived at the inlet just before dawn in a squall of gusting wind and pouring rain.  We had to wait outside the pass with Storm Haven and one other boat for the weather to clear, holding our positions in 20 knots of wind and wind tossed 5 foot seas.  After an hour of being tossed around the rain letup and the skies brightened with the rising sun, we turned Downtime toward the pass and  had the anchor set by 8:00am. 

Rangaroa is the largest atoll in the group some 140 miles around with 640 square miles of lagoon.  The atoll is 40 miles long and 15 miles wide with over 240 coral heads scattered within the lagoon making navigation interesting.  Rangaroa means “extended sky” and is the most populated atoll and home to over 3000 people. Most of the population lives in one of the  two villages located on either of the two passes that enter the atoll. Along the 8 mile strip of land that separates them is an airport and many hotel’s.  The hotel’s are built along the tranquil lagoon side and not the windy open sea.  Both villages have small stores, schools and the medical center, airport and college are located centrally between the two.

During our stay the weather was stormy and unsettled which was bad for snorkeling but gave me the perfect opportunity to do some great kite surfing with the strong winds. We met two other boats that were anchored nearby who also kite surfed and we were all able to kite together for three days before a ear infection ended my fun.

While I was kite surfing with my new friends Daria went for a tour to a local pearl farm.  She found out there were up to 300 pearl farms in the Tuamotu’s at one time.  A perfect pearl is still rare and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors from charcoal grey to rainbow green. To grow a 16mm pearl takes nine years this way and a good oyster can make several pearls in its lifetime.  You can still buy nice pearls at good prices here and there are several shops that have nice selections on the island.

Our last and westernmost atoll on our way to Tahiti that we visited was Tikihau and located just 22 miles away.  Tuheiava Pass is located on the western end of the atoll and was another hair raising experience entering.  The channel was well marked with red and green on either side, but halfway through the entrance  the bottom rose steeply and the depth sounder went from reading 80 feet to just 15 feet in a short distance!  The charts also showed “scattered coral heads”  then when it became shallow the current also increased in speed and we had to keep adding power to be able to make headway while dodging coral heads!  Downtime draws 6 feet of water and when it gets this shallow in this clear of water it looks like you are going to hit at any moment, Daria was on the bow watching for coral’s making sure we did not do just that.  For the most part our c-map charts have been very accurate and have been able to show us exactly where we are at on the navigation  screen,  but there was that one time in Belize when they were of almost 2 miles!  I will never quite trust them, It just takes once to end the party out here! 

We anchored in front of the Pearl Beach Resort where you can stay in a $600 bungalow above the water and drink $8 beers.  The location is very remote and they shuttle the guest 2 miles to the airport in a water taxi.  This is when it is nice to be on your own boat, you have 5 star accommodations a fridge full of 50 cent beers and the freezer full of fresh steaks, lamb, tuna and chicken with a million dollar view!

The next morning we took SD for another adventure across the lagoon to the bird sanctuary, some 20 miles away.  The island is home to thousands sea birds and hundreds flew up to greet us as we arrived.  There was no easy access onto the island that was surrounded with rough coral shores, so we just drove around the small island in the clear water.  On our return we drove past a religious center “Little Eden” which gave me that “Jim Jones” feeling as we drove by…  We returned back to Downtime and loaded SD in her cradle with another 50 miles on odometer bringing her trip this season to over 1000 miles!! Not counting the 9500 miles she rode here on the back of Downtime…

Having explored our last atoll we pointed Downtime back to the pass for our trip to Tahiti just 160 miles away.  We cleared the pass the afternoon of the 2nd of June at 4:00 in light NE winds.  It was a nice uneventful sail through the night and by early morning we had made good progress.   Sadly at 5 am the winds dropped and the motors had to come on to keep us moving at 6 knots.  We have been fortunate to have amazing winds this trip and have been able to travel over 4000 miles on just 300 gallons of fuel, not bad considering half that is used to run generators on to make water and charge the batteries.

 We motor sailed through the morning trolling our fishing lines without much success, then around 10am one bait was hit hard!  I could tell it was a good fish by how fast the line was going out!  This time I decided to just let the fish work himself out taking as much  of the 3500 feet of the line as he wanted instead of fighting him for an hour.  We slowed the boat by furling the jib and slowing the engines maintaining 3 knots of forward speed but the fish kept fighting but taking less and less line. It was Daria’s turn to reel one in, she put on the belt and started reeling, pulling the rod and reeling.  The fish had been on over 30 minutes and the fight was wearing him down,  20 minutes of reeling and the fish finally showed himself behind the boat, A nice white marlin!!!  Daria’s  first un-assisted  marlin!!  I gaffed the fish and in twenty minute we had him filleted on ice with Tahiti on the horizon!!  Another amazing day!!

In our next post we will be exploring Tahiti and Moorea!!
Until then,    
Peace Captain Pedro and Daria