Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Tuamotus (2011)

After a month of exploring the Marquesas, it was time to move on.  We still have a lot of French Polynesia to see before our 90-day visas expire.  We set off from Baie Taiohae in Nuku Hiva on June 14th.   Our destination was the Tuamotus archipelago, about 500 miles south.
The first day was a bit squally, but this was still our most enjoyable passage yet.  The winds were generally steady from the E to ENE at 12-18 knots, with seas from the same direction at 5-8 feet.  Most of the passage was sailed under full main (single-reefed at night) and genoa, and the motion was actually quite comfortable on a beam reach.  After four nights at sea, we spotted our first atoll, Kauehi, a little after noon.
The Tuamotus consist of 78 atolls stretched across an area about 1,000 miles wide.  In contrast to the lush green and high volcanic islands of the Marquesas, the Tuamotus are low lying coral atolls which are only visible from 10 miles away in good conditions.  They are only as high as the tallest palm tree, which grows from a few feet above sea level.  Some of them are true atolls that have unbroken circular reefs, while most have at least one break in the atoll where the lagoon can be entered.  Only about 46 of the atolls are permanently inhabited, and about 16,000 people live on those islands. There is no fresh water available on the atolls except rainwater that is collected, and most structures have gutters on the roof and a cistern sitting next to them for this purpose.
The Tuamotus are known as the “Dangerous Archipelago” due to all of the navigational hazards.  Entering the lagoons can present a challenge and is recommended to be done during slack tide.  This is because when the tide is moving up or down, a significant amount of water going in or out of the lagoons funnels through the pass.  This can create a very strong current.  If the wind is opposing that current, tall standing waves can also occur.  Transiting a lagoon should be done during the day, preferably with the sun to your back, so you can see the coral heads that rise up from the deep water, often only a couple of feet below the surface. 
We chose Kauehi as our first atoll because it was supposed to be one of the easiest passes to navigate and has very few hazards between the pass and the small village of Tearavero, nine miles across the lagoon.  We spotted the north side of the atoll from about eight miles out. It’s easy to see how difficult it would be to spot the atoll at night or in heavy weather. 
Once we had Kauehi in our sights, we sailed on toward the southwest side where the only navigable pass is located.  It was early afternoon, and we were unsure whether we would make it through the pass and to the anchorage before the sun went down.  It looked like we might miss it by only an hour or two, which would unfortunately mean another night at sea heaving to outside the pass so we could enter the following day.  We knew our friends aboard s/v Kite were in the anchorage, so we hailed them on the VHF to get more information about the pass and the anchorage.  They told us that it was fairly straight forward and that there was plenty of room in the anchorage.
As we approached the pass, we had missed slack tide by a couple hours, and the current was flooding into the pass, which was opposing the NE winds.  This was causing standing waves three to four feet tall that were only a few feet apart.  After discussing it for a while, we decided to go for it.  We doused the sails and turned the engine on, moving at five knots towards the pass.  As we got closer to the pass, the boat speed picked up, and we approached the standing waves at about 10 knots, boosted by a five knot current.  At that speed, we were able to just skim across the tops of the waves and were in the calm lagoon within a few minutes.  This would have been almost impossible for Saviah if the current was flowing in the opposite direction.  We then motored full speed to the anchorage and arrived just as the sun was setting.  We called Kite again on the VHF, and they pointed out the reef and a few coral heads in the anchorage, which we could no longer see, and we anchored away from shore in about 40 feet.  We preferred to be closer to shore, but we wouldn’t have been able to see the reef or coral heads at that hour.  It was a relief to be anchored.
Kauehi is a beautiful atoll, with a small village and turquoise waters.  As the wind was blowing 20 knots during the first few days, we hung out on the boat and did some cleaning and knocked out some boat projects, including redesigning the anchor windlass mount.  Jack and Zdenka aboard s/v Kite invited us over for drinks, and another couple from s/v Remedy from New Zealand (Ian and Wendy) joined us.  A few days later, we met our neighbors in the anchorage aboard s/v Tuatara, Kevin and Evelyn, from the San Juan Islands. 
After a couple days, we rowed to shore and walked around.  It only took a few hours to see all of Tearavero.  The village is located on the widest part of the atoll, and we made the ten minute walk from the lagoon to the exposed windward side, which looked very unforgiving as the waves pounded against the reef – quite the contrast to the protected waters of the lagoon.  The flat terrain of the atoll was a big change from the lush green peaks of the Marquesas, and the feeling of being in a remote place in the South Pacific more pronounced.  The water in the lagoon is very clear and when the sun is above, you can see the bottom here in 50 feet of water. 
After five nights in Kauehi, we set off for Fakarava, another atoll 40 miles away.  Kite and Remedy were also leaving at the same time, and we all sailed across the lagoon on a beam reach as squall clouds loomed from the east.  We were making 6 knots under double-reefed main and working jib.  The squall hit with 30 knot winds just as we were about to enter the pass, so we stopped just shy of the pass and waited for the squall to blow over.  Once it was over, we headed through the pass and then set our course for Fakarava.  It was a squally day, but thankfully they were all fairly short.  We sailed dead downwind under genoa alone for most of the day, making it to the north Fakarava pass around 4 pm for slack tide. 
The Fakarava pass was also wide, and we made it through without issue.  Another race across the lagoon found us once again dropping the hook right before the sun disappeared and the next squall hit.  There were more boats here, probably 20 compared to the 6 or 7 in Kauehi.  This was not surprising since the village in Fakarava is larger, and more services can be found on the atoll. 
The first day we spent exploring the village, and found an ice cream shop, bakery and a small store.  There were even a couple of resorts and restaurants on the atoll.  Needing some exercise, we decided to walk north along the road for the six miles back to the pass.  Our hike was a hot one with very few trees to provide shade. After a few miles, it turned into a dirt road along the narrow strip of land.  Lucky for us, some locals were also heading to the pass and stopped to ask if we would like a ride.  We hopped in the back of the truck and enjoyed the breeze as we sped along the bumpy road.
Once there, we walked along the shores of the pass and watched a catamaran leave the atoll.  After a quick lunch and some water, we started the long, hot walk back to the village.  Our timing was good, and the same people stopped again and gave us a ride.  On the way back, they pulled off the road and stopped to show us a marae (an ancient religious site) that we would have never known about otherwise. 

Another thing we wanted to do in the Tuamotus was to visit a pearl farm.  Gathering of oysters was a big business many years ago in the Tuamotus.  The natives would free dive to depths of 200 feet to collect oysters for pearls as well as the mother-of-pearl that was used to make buttons.  Later the business shrank as artificial buttons were introduced, which cut the demand.  Also at that time, the good sized pearl-bearing oysters were becoming harder to find and required diving to depths that were very difficult to get to.  The business came back again in the 1970’s when Mikimoto Company introduced cultured pearls, and now harvesting black pearls is a big business in the Tuamotus. 
We noticed a Hinano Pearls boutique in the village and stopped by to inquire about tours.  Turns out that our timing was good – Gustav, the owner, had just returned from Tahiti that morning, and picked us up in the village to drive us out to his pearl farm, about six miles south.
Once at the farm, he led us out on a boardwalk over the lagoon waters to the wooden shack on stilts where the pearls are grafted and harvested.  The building is over the water to ensure the oysters are out of the water as little as possible.  He explained the grafting process to us, which is the method they use to implant the nucleus.  This process was quite interesting to observe as the expert grafter gently pried the shells open and then maneuvered the scalpel and other tiny instruments to insert a nucleus into the oysters as we watched.  If the graft is successful, the host oyster begins to secrete the colored mother of pearl around the nucleus, which then grows over the next 18 months to form a pearl.
Throughout the 18 month growing period, the shells are pulled from the lagoon water periodically to be inspected and cleaned.  If the graft does not take or the nucleus is rejected, the shell is set aside and the process begins again.  If the pearl is near perfect, it is removed and replaced with a new nucleus the size of the pearl removed, which results in larger pearls in the 2nd and 3rd grafts.  Most of the pearls we saw inspected were not perfect enough for the 2nd or 3rd graft, but still of high enough quality to be kept and sold.  Since all the shells are at varying stages of the process, the operation is very organized and detailed, as they know exactly what stage all of the shells are in and which nets they are in.  They pull and inspect approximately 400 shells per day.  After the tour, the boutique was the next stop.  Di found some beautiful black pearl earrings and a necklace for a fraction of what they would have cost in the states.
Fakarava pearl farm
Another draw to Fakarava is the spectacular diving.  Neither of us had any experience scuba diving, so we stopped at one of the dive shops to see what sort of classes they offered.  They offered an introductory dive, and so later that afternoon we set out across the lagoon and just outside the pass for our first dive.  We were a little nervous, but we had a really good instructor to ourselves.  He spent time with getting us comfortable with the gear, and then down we went.
It was an amazing experience to breathe underwater.  We descended slowly, equalizing our ears as we went.  After we got used to the equipment, we set off to explore the coral garden.  The fish were everywhere:  parrotfish, trumpet fish, barracuda, Napoleon wrasse, and many others.  We swam over, under, and through schools of fish, enjoying the splash of color at every turn.  Then we saw our first shark.  It was a white-tip reef shark, and thankfully kept its distance from us as it patrolled the area.  We found ourselves looking over our shoulders as we swam away, not quite comfortable having our backs to it.  We saw a few more along the way, and they also kept their distance so we began to get a little more used to the idea of sharing the water with sharks.  Before we knew it, the dive was over, and we had the diving bug.
Back at the dive shop, we talked to the instructors about getting our scuba certifications.  It turns out that this outfit has several dive shops around French Polynesia, and they would let us complete the first half of our training here and the other half at another location.  This was appealing to us, as we were ready to move on and get to Tahiti for the Heiva festivities.  We decided that diving was a valuable skill aboard a boat that we would both like to have.  This was driven home by our recent experience in Nuku Hiva where our chain was fouled on the bottom, and we were stuck.   So, we decided to spend a few more days diving in Fakarava instead of visiting another atoll.
The next day we signed up for the certification course and scheduled our first two dives.  The morning dive was a more instructional, confined water dive in the lagoon right by the dive shop.  We spent time learning more about the equipment and how to use it.  Then that afternoon, we did an open water dive outside the reef.  Again, the marine life we saw was amazing, this time including gray sharks and manta rays.  We descended to 55 feet and swam along the bottom, observing the coral and fish in deep crystal clear water.  They were right about diving in the Tuamotus being spectacular.
After a little over two weeks visiting the atolls, the Society Islands were calling.  As always, it’s hard to leave such a beautiful place, but we were also excited about visiting the Society Islands.  On June 30th, we said farewell to Fakarava and the Tuamotus, and set sail for a two day passage to Tahiti.