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the tuamotus



May 26 - 1021 S - 13930 W

This morning we enjoyed our Marquesan fruit smoothie - now a daily treat - papaya, banana, orange, yum. Then we got the boat ready for our passage, pulling off sail covers, running the jacklines, securing and stowing. At about 9 am we radioed Warm Rain, who were also ready, and pulled anchor and raised the main. We bid farewell to the lovely Marquesas, as they faded to light blue smudges off our stern.

Winds are forecast to be light, though steady. We are flying the spinnaker, on a beam reach, making 7 knots in 10-14 of wind, smooth sailing in flat seas. Dunno if this can keep up - but is is delightful, as good as it gets.

We have been reading up on how these Pacific island groups were formed. Like Hawaii, the French Polynesian groups, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Societies, were pooped out every millenia or so from volcanic hotspots within the Pacific plate. The plate migrates NW on its bed of magma, while the hotspot stays relatively fixed, so the oldest islands are the NW in each island set, and the youngest the SE.

The Tuamotus are also known as the "Dangerous Isles", due to the shipwrecks they collected until longitude was finally measured. Even today with GPS, the atolls collect new wrecks. We will approach them with due respect. We have good charts and guidebooks, and fresh waypoints from the boats just ahead of us.


May 27 - 1233 S - 13136 W

On my off-watch this morning in my bunk, I had the impression we were tied to a dock. Under spinnaker in flat calm we were making great speed with almost no motion. But when I started my watch, Dave pointed out the squall line that was chasing us. We doused the spinnaker, then flew the jib in in the following hours of downpour. The rain pounded the seas flat, raising bubbles. We were stuck in the squall line for some time, and eventually started the engine to escape.

Now it is night, starry skies, the half moon not yet risen. We are again reaching at 6-7 knots under full jib and reefed main, nice! This may be a faster trip than we expected. Dave is happy when we don't run the engine, partly due to less wear and required maintenance work, and also due to engine oil costing $35 a gallon here.

We are tired, a little sleep deprived, but this passage is going well. Warm Rain is 12 miles ahead. We check in with them by radio every 6 hours.

Tomorrow we will past the Disappointment Isles and enter the Dangerous Archipelago. Sounds ominous. We recently watched Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki film. He crash landed on a Tuamotu reef when the crew realized, late in the game, that they could not sail to windward (and land on the lee side) with a square rig. With good charts, radar and GPS we should fare a little better.


May 28 - 1323 S - 14226 W

Spinnaker day, making 6-7 knots in 10 of wind. We douse the spinnaker at night, as it is too tricky to handle after dark and takes both of us on the foredeck to raise and snuff it. It is a Hasse & Co sail, beautiful and well-made. We have a love/hate relationship with it, as it is often challenging to set up and take down, especially in building winds. We blanket it by the reefed main, and have an ATN sock. The sock pulls up and down on a clothesline loop to open and close the sail, making it manageable for a short-handed crew, though I still feel anxiety when we are handling it. Once up, it kites us along at very fine speeds with little rolling in these steady tradewinds. Lovely easy motion.

2 more days/nights to go.


May 29 - 1512 S - 14408 W

Rolling along under reefed main, we are slowing the boat down to arrive at the pass entrance after daybreak tomorrow. Dave and Tom (Warm Rain) are strategizing on how to time slack water. Charlie's says go 1 1/2 hours after the low at Tahanea. Another book says slack is 5 hours after moonset. These don't quite agree, so we will stand off and eyeball it during the window set by these 2 references. Another case of the man with 2 watches not knowing the time.

In local news, the stalk of bananas is ripe, and we each eat about 5 bananas a day. I was planning to make banana pancakes this morning, but when I got up Dave had already had cereal with bananas. The vanilla beans, gift from Keiki the bone carver on Tahuata, are drying next to the companionway, giving the boat a sweet perfume.


May 30 - Kauehi, Tuamotus

Landfall! Always so sweet after any passage. During the night approach, the radar clearly showed the low atolls, even the breaking surf line between motus. We are so happy our old radar died when it did back in the states - the replacement unit is a vital tool in this tricky archipelago, where the GPS is often more accurate than charts. The radar tells the truth.

We arrived with Warm Rain at daybreak, and watched a German ketch go through the passage just ahead. We followed, on the tail end of the outgoing tide. The pass boiled like Active Pass in the Gulf Islands, and the south edge featured a rolling bore, but it posed no problems for us. We popped inside, then motored across the 5-mile lagoon to the village, where we are now anchored. It has been a very long time since we have been at anchor without the rolling swell of the ocean rocking us. Feels strange to be this still.

Around the rim of the lagoon we can see pearl farms, with buildings on stilts over the water. We settled the boat, covering the mainsail, washing salt off, restowing the offshore gear, tidying up. Today will be a lazy day while we catch up on rest.

The orange curves on the radar screen (upper right) confirm the chartplotter is correct, even showing the breaking waves on Kauehi's submerged south reef. We can safely approach the dangerous Tuamotus.

The radar confirms the chartplotter, showing 2 atolls.


May 31 - Kauehi - Catch of the Day

After a big breakfast of banana-walnut pancakes, pamplemousse and fruit smoothies (legacy of the Marquesas), we dinghied ashore, tying up to the church quai. We met several German cruising couples, all dashing in after seeing the plane from Papeete land. The weekly plane delivers stock to the single store on this atoll. Today's haul included fresh baquettes, sold out in 30 minutes, still at 60 cents each despite the par avion delivery. The French have their priorities!

Dave delivered our baguettes to the boat while I explored with Dawn of Warm Rain down the crushed coral street. We met a man who was heading out to fish. He recruited us to help fold his net into his small outrigger canoe, then handed me a line tied to one end of the net. He called to his "femme" to come. She climbed on the stern while he paddled out into the lagoon, then she stood and paid out the net in a large curve while he paddled. Then the man came ashore and waded chest-deep under a dock where he cartwheeled his arms, splashing noisily to scare fish basking in the shade into his net. A few minutes later the man and woman hauled the net back in to the outrigger - teaming with hundreds of small fish. We followed them onto the dock and spent the next hour and a half pulling the fish from the net, filling a 5-gallon bucket. They showed us how to pinch the fish at the gills, and pull them face forward through the net, as you couldn't pull against their gills. They advised us (in French) how to clean and cook the fish, and gave us 2 large bags full.

We walked to the NE side of the atoll, and beachcombed, finding a few shells, and a lot of plastic debris from distant places. The exterior reef looks very unforgiving. Back in the lagoon, Dave and I cleaned our catch, then went snorkeling under an abandoned pearl farm. Beautiful corals, and a huge variety of colorful fish, including some large grouper. We won't eat fish here unless the locals do - as there is danger of ciguatera, so we were happy to have our catch of the day.

Tom and Dawn came to dinner, and I fried the fish in olive oil with plenty of garlic, accompanied by salad and baguette. Delicious! Happy Opal got the last leftovers. Fun day!

It is very beautiful here, and different from the verdant and steep Marquesas. The atoll is flat - no more than a dozen feet above high water. You can see that the storm surge of a cyclone could overtake the atoll. The sea inside is a calm lake of kodak-postcard colors, pale pastel aqua, emerald, turquoise, teal, then deep blue falling away into depth.

Dawn and I help load a net into an outrigger dugout.

This couple invites us to join their fishing.

They set the net while we hold the shore line.

5 minues later they pull in their catch.

Air Tahiti flies in fresh baguettes once a week to this remote atoll.

Dave delivers the baguettes to Baraka.

Kauehi anchorage.

Oytser floats.

Coconut nursery.

The residents catch rain for most of their water. Some years bring drought.


June 1 - Kauehi

Lazy day. We tooted into the village late in the morning to deliver a thankyou bottle of wine and 2 papaya to our friendly fisherman benefactor. His response was more gifts, beautiful cowrie shells from nearby Taiaro, collected in the right moon, and a carved shell pendant. I think this is a Polynesian thing, being the last one to give a gift, like having the last word.

We explored the town motu, walking down streets to the waters edge, then looping back to the cemetery. Half the gravestones, grouped together, were for tiny children, less than 5 years old. Epidemic? High child mortality rate? Dunno, but town cemeteries are always interesting,

The supply ship Mareve Nui arrived today, dropping off supplies by barge, including a new pickup, rumored to cost 100K, and picking up copra, dried coconut, which will be processed into oil in Papeete. Diesel is delivered in drums to fuel two generators, so the town has electricity and even satelite TV. But except for the single small grocery, there is nowhere to spend money, no shops, no restaurants or pensions, and no tourism. Everything must be ordered and delivered. I think it is a very happy life for those who are content without a lot of material possessions, who can appreciate the natural beauty of these atolls. But the people must be hardy, to survive with collected rainwater, withstand drought, and pull their living from the lagoon or coconut tree. We also wonder if these atolls will be affected by global warming. In one account, estimates are 50-100 years before sea levels rise enough to cover the atolls in storm surges. If the rise is slow enough, can coral growth keep up?

Tomorrow morning we head next door to neighboring atoll Fakarava, where our friend Brett is flying in.

The supply ship delivers a new pickup.

Looks like paradise, but life is hardscrabble in the Tuamotus.


June 3 -Rotoava, Fakarava

Yesterday the alarm woke us in time to hit the pass at Kauehi just before slack water, to make the 35-mile crossing to Fakarava and clear its north pass at the high water slack. The trip across was boisterous - sloppy seas and a marching army of squalls, winds peaking at 30 knots. We made good time under reefed jib, but were sorry we hadn't raised a reefed main to stabilize the boat. Tacking inside Fakarava, we watched Brett's plane land.

Longtime friend Brett brought welcome boat parts and treats. We anchored and picked him up at the pier. After dinner we had "Christmas". My brother Rolfe managed to send parts to rebuild the Forespar pole, and an AIS system. Malinda sent mail, manuals, a spring, and a birthday present for Dave. These deliveries will be increasingly rare, and just as welcome.

This morning I rowed ashore and hit the Boulangerie in time to score the final 5 baquettes. You have to be an early bird here to get bread. I also got pain au chocolats and danish, something we haven't seen for a month in these tiny villages. Feels like civilization, though only a few hundred people live here.

This man seems to have a child he can spare.

A bicycle built for three.

The church at Rotoava, Fakarava.

A rainbow blesses this boat.


June 5 -Kakiaau, Fakarava

Today the supply ship Cobia 3 visited the village. We dinghied in hoping to get gas for the outboard. At the quai a cashier's table was set up. After eyeballing our tank, they decided 18 liters would fill it and charged me about $7/gallon. With receipt in hand, I walked our dinghy tank over to a man standing next to a pallet of fuel drums. He filled our tank, cranking a pump by hand.

Mission accomplished, we walked to a resort where pearls are sold. Some beautiful pieces, but we were foiled, as their system to authorize Visa charges was down. This village is too small to have a bank or ATM, or gas station. Back in the village, the grocery had unloaded today's supply ship delivery. Romaine lettuce! Grapes and apples! We haven't seen anything beyond a few wizened carrots for weeks. We stocked up, then returned to Baraka to stow for the passage south down the inside of the reef. The passage is well marked by red and green buoys, although the day turned squally and we needed the radar to find them. Outside the marked passage lurked coral reefs and fish nets. We threaded our way south against squally headwinds. Near our target anchorage the engine started overheating. We made it in by sunset, and got the anchor down, before the temperature alarm sounded. Yikes. Tomorrow morning Dave will check all the usual culprits: belts, seawater filter, impellers, and hope it is something easy to fix.

The Cobia 3 comes to town.

We are excited to find gas for the outboard. The Cobia crane drops a palatte of barrels on the dock, and this man has a hand pump.


June 6 -Tetamanu, Fakarava

Dave determined our engine overheating is from loss of water from our fresh water pump. He had installed a new unit only a few months ago in Puerto Vallarta. He put the old unit back in, though it also has a small leak. By noon we raised anchor and again were on our way. We arrived at the south anchorage of Fakarava in time to join 3 other cruising boats for a dinner at Annabelle's dive resort. After a damp dinghy ride in, we enjoyed a great meal of parrot fish and curried chicken. The evening entertainment was supplied by the dozens of black tip reef sharks circling under the restaurant, which is built on pilings over the water. The other 3 boats have done the pass dive repeatedly and gave us advice.

After our fun evening, we dinghied back to the anchorage, into big sloppy swells that tossed drenching spray in our faces. We were soaked through. Now the wind is howling and tossing the boat around at anchor. We have a rowdy night ahead.

Fakarava's south pass, home to the famous WALL OF SHARKS!!!

Looking out from Annabelle's bar.


June 7-Drift snorkel with sharks!

Today we dinghied in to Annabelle's dive resort and tied up to explore the ruins of the old town. This was once the capitol of the Tuamotus, until wiped out by a cyclone. The 1874 church still stands, with its mother-of-pearl altar.

We walked over to eyeball the pass for our drift-snorkel, figuring out where to drop in. Soon it was time to go. We dinghied through the pass toward open ocean against the flood tide, then slid into the water holding onto ropes attached to the dinghy. The current carried us inbound through the pass over a coral garden, full of small tropical fish. At least they looked small - we were seeing them through 30 feet of clear blue water. Brett spotted a ray. As we got into shallower water we started seeing lots of black-tipped reef sharks. They stayed below and didn't seem interested in us as we glided overhead. Inside the lagoon, we climbed back in the dinghy and did it a second time. We never saw the larger grey sharks. As we climbed out, a good-sized reef shark wandered by, maybe 8 feet away. Fantastic experience! Can't believe we would ever deliberately snorkel in shark-infested waters. Back at Annabelle's, the girls from Meridian threw peanuts into the water so I could photograph the sharks and remoras that swarmed in response.

We had another sloppy ride home to Baraka, but are learning to put clothes in a dry bag and commute in bathing suits. At dusk we went ashore again, on a lobster hunt, but only found a few large hermit crabs walking on the coral beach.

The wind is unrelenting. It has been howling for a week. We are happy to be tucked securely here, though even inside the atoll, the boat is bouncy at anchor.

These are the nice reef sharks.

Annabelle's bar-restaurant-dive Tetamanu resort (4 bungalows) at Fakarava south pass.

More sharks.

And a black-tipped reef shark, up close.

The old Tetamanu church has an altar of oyster shells.

Annabelle puts on a feast for the boats at anchor.

Friend Brett sails with us up the Fakarava channel back to Rotoava.

This hermit crab is riding lookout.


June 8 - More current snorkeling

After yesterday's intro, we are no longer hyper-ventilating when we see reef sharks up close and personal. Ho Hum. So we dinghied out the pass once more against the flood tide, then hopped in the water holding onto our dinghy umbilical cords. This time we rode the current much further, all the way around the corner into the lagoon. As the reef shoaled out, the current picked up speed, and we were soon flying over the coral. This time we positioned ourselves better, and got to see an absolutely amazing variety of tropical fish, in every hue and size, including varieties we had never seen elsewhere. We could hold still and hover while the scenery scrolled by. The coral garden is healthy, spectacular and varied. We kept an eye over our shoulders, in the deeper blue water, for the big grey sharks, but never saw them. We saw plenty of the black-tipped ones, sometimes only yards away. These sharks go into quite shallow water, rubbing their bellies over the coral, with black fins slicing above water.

Back at Annabelle's again, I bought 30 eggs for $16, happy to have them. Annabelle has 22 chickens, so the eggs are fresh. Tomorrow we will start back north to Rotoava, the village at the north end of Fakarava, maybe stopping overnight along the reef for one more remote anchorage.

At anchor tonight the wind is still howling, gusting to 30 knots. All our dinghy rides from the anchorage to the pass have been very wet, waves breaking over the bow. We seriously considered wearing masks and snorkels to see as we motored through the slop caused by wind opposing current.


June 11 - Amyot Cove, Toau

We left the south pass of Fakarava 2 days ago and headed up inside the reef toward Rotoava. We anchored overnight halfway along for reef exploring, seeing 2 black-tip sharks in small lagoons, and a lot of interesting shells, including coconut crabs, one perched on top of a stick. Lookout duty?

Yesterday we sailed the rest of the way to Rotoava. Blue Plains Drifter told us where to find Poeata Creations, to buy black pearls, and Tiffany provided valuable advice ("If in doubt, buy both!") Back at the town hall, Brett and I did laundry in buckets until we were busted for doing it in a public place. So we packed up and did the rinse cycle back aboard.

This morning Dave rowed ashore to pick up the baguette order. We then bashed out through the pass against an incoming tide, and sailed to an atoll just north, Toau, to tiny Amyot cove. Several boats ahead of us advised of this peaceful and pretty stop on the lee side of the reef. We arrived late afternoon after a boisterous sail, and are happy to be moored in this quiet spot, planning to spend several days. A skiff motored out to greet us and tie is to a mooring ball, our first since Catalina Island in 2006. We have a list of maintenance to do before the Papeete passage. We had one fire drill today - the shaft brake set screws came loose, and we had to lie ahull in rolly seas while Dave backed the screws out, to be fixed here.


June 13 - Rainy Days

We are attached to a mooring buoy at Toau. Yesterday and today we had nearly continuous rain, sometimes a pounding deluge. Brett and Dave spent a couple hours trying to rig the foredeck awning to catch rainwater for our tank, with little joy. I used a small blue tarp and had slightly better luck. Today I tossed our laundry in the dinghy, half full of water, and soaped and rinsed. The trick will be to get it dry between squalls.

Brett and I rowed ashore to meet Valentina. She and Gascon had just killed a young pig, hanging from a rafter, and the boats in the anchorage were invited to dinner. At 7pm we dinghied in for the feast, meeting several European boats and joining Pax Vobiscum, a group altogether of maybe 20 people. Valentina served tuna sashimi, goat stew and rice, baguettes, fresh grilled fish, and cake for dessert. We were happily stuffed. Tomorrow morning we will go ashore to learn more about the pearl farm.

The heavy rain pounds the seas flat.

Valentine and Gaston's restaurant at Toau.

Jan holds an orphaned baby frigate.

Dave aggravates the same.


June 14 - Black Pearls

Today we went ashore to watch Valentine open oysters her husband Gascon had brought from the pearl farm motu. Unfortunately, he selected a string too young, and the pearls were not mature. Valentine tossed one over her shoulder into the lagoon, and several more were hardly worth keeping. After a man pried them open and inserted a small wedge, Valentine went searching with what looked like dental tools for the single pearl, while the oyster was held in a special clamp. We were impressed by how labor intensive this work is. Each oyster produces only 2 pearls in its lifetime, one at 2 years, the other at 4 years. The irritant seed is made from shell, which comes from Mississippi! The oyster rejects any manmade material.

Afterwards Valentine let us select and buy some unmounted pearls. We were impressed with the variety of colors and quality. I traded shampoo and perfume for 10 keshis, tiny malformed pearls, that I wanted for an ankle bracelet. I also gave Valentine a large container of dried Parmesan cheese, and she promises me one more pearl tomorrow. The supply boat Cobia visits Toau once a month. coming to the lagoon at the other end of the atoll, so it is hard for the dozen people living here to get supplies. I also gave Valentine two large chocolate bars from the Zihuatanejo dollar store, which made her pretty happy. Wish I'd brought more!

Oysters are opened and a wedge inserted.

Then Valentine fishes for a pearl.

We beachcomb between rain squalls.

Dave tries on a turtle skull hat.

This whalejaw is 4 feet tall.

Dedicated Brett calls Jane from remote places.


June 15 - Lazy Day

Still on our mooring buoy. Dave says it is attached to a coral head. We are having a lazy day, snorkeling around the boat to clean the waterline, and reading the week-old NY Times brought by Pax Vobiscum's guest. I swam over to another boat Dave was visiting to swipe an oar from our dinghy. Dave got a tow home, and told me quick, we need to put the motor on to go looking for the oar! I had to confess.

More rain today! We are talking with Pax about leaving tomorrow for Papeete, though the seas are large - 3 meters, with short interval so it will be an uncomfortable ride. But it gets no better as the week goes on. Fortunately it is a short passage - only 2 days, but it sounds really miserable. We will wait another day to see if the reports improve.

Next: Our Society Islands journal.

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