Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Tuamotus: Fakarava (South Pass)

[Kyle]From our anchorage in Tahanea, we motorsailed the short distance to the pass and then headed out for the overnight sail to Fakarava. At fifty miles, it was just a little too far to sail in daylight on the shortest day of the year – unless the wind was really howling (It was not), so we planned a slow sail in light winds.

That worked for the first seven miles, and then the wind dropped to two knots. The forecast called for it to gradually increase from there, so we decided to just bob around in our spot and wait for it.

While we were waiting, we overheard several radio conversations amongst the large group we have been roughly paralleling. They were debating whether to leave right then and also sail overnight or to wait until morning and motor hard through the day. Most elected to stay and get a last night’s rest while one left. Another catamaran (So What) motored past us a few hours later as we were still waiting for the wind to return.

It finally got late enough that we had to resort to running an engine ourselves in order to make it to the pass at the morning slack water. We were keen to transit then, rather than with the whole crowd in the afternoon.

The wind never did pick up, so we ended up motoring the whole way. Ugh!

At daybreak, So What and Begonia were just off of the south pass into Fakarava. So What put out a general request for tide information. I answered that we thought slack was at 7:45, but we were going to try the pass early and see what it was like. They hung back and let us go in first as Guinea Pigs.

From sea, the pass looked like it was crossed by large breaking waves. The pass cuts in at an angle and it actually passed through smooth water behind the breakers. We had a little current against us, but since it had been calm all night, we had no trouble.

We lucked out. The anchorage is reputed to be very corally, but there were two moorings open, so we picked one up, saving us the whole anchor hubbub. Our mooring was made of heavy line connected to a stout chain wrapped around a coral head that was as big as the boat and probably ten times heavier.

We probably needed sleep after sailing all night, but it was just too tempting to go into the water and have a look around.

First, of course, was to check the mooring. I hadn’t even moved from the stern step before spotting the first Blacktip Reef Shark directly below me, along with a school of Parrotfish. It seems each mooring is assigned a shark. Every now and then the one from the next mooring over would come and swim a bit with ours before returning to its post.


Beautiful Fakarava

Thinking the pudgy with the electric motor wouldn’t be powerful enough to overcome the currents in the pass, we decided to splash out and have a nearby dive shop take us out in one of their boats. We tried to call on VHF, but got no answer. We then swam ashore to them and found them all closed up, so we decided to walk/swim across motus and through the smaller passes until we got to the village. Once there, we walked through the village to the outside of the pass. After checking that the current was going into the atoll, we entered the water and drift snorkeled our way in. A-MAZ-ING! An unbroken seascape of colorful coral near the surface plunged steeply down to the bottom of the pass a hundred feet below. We saw lots more fish of so many varieties, including giant lumbering Napoleon Wrasses and sharks, lots of sharks.

As we passed by the village (not really a village, just a group of dive shacks), the shark population increased until there were more than we could count as they zipped around in every direction. Being careful not to step on one, we climbed out at a restaurant with the idea of thanking the village for the free mooring by throwing them some business. Maryanne found an empty corner of a picnic table, but before she could sit, the owner came up and shooed her off for getting wet footprints on the floor. What? We’re not supposed to get an unfinished deck wet at an outdoor picnic table surrounded by dive shops? Half the people there were dripping. We tried to explain that we were hoping for a snack or maybe a beer, to which he said we would need a reservation for the full prix fixe menu, which was seemed to be priced for divers who are used to forking out $400 per dive. Uh, no thanks. We’ll go back in with the sharks. By then, the current had switched to ebb (out) and we were having a hard time overcoming it. We crawled out on the beach and got home in the same walk/snorkel manner, only in reverse.


The sharks were everywhere

We spent the next day repeating the same snorkeling routes and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. In the afternoon, we decided to start making our way up the atoll to the other side. We picked a spot about halfway and found a nice empty bommie-free spot to drop the anchor while we wait out some changing winds.


It wasn't ALL sharks

At least we thought it was bommie-free. It turns out the water was just really silty and we couldn’t see the bottom, which made it look like white sand. Once I got on a mask and fins, I pulled myself down the chain to see what was down there. It was mostly sand, but there were dead coral heads scattered about. As a precaution, we had buoyed the last two thirds of our chain which was keeping us away from it.

Early in the morning, just before sunrise, the wind shifted to the west and strengthened. Our calm anchorage got much choppier. As daylight arrived, we found ourselves just ahead of shore. It is made up of a short wall of coral and the waves were smashing into it, sending surprisingly large plumes of spray flying. It looked pretty horrific. We double and triple-checked our anchor and floats and we seemed to be holding well without having wrapped around any coral heads. Still, the view out the back is a little disconcerting. The wind is forecast to continue backing to the south and strengthening. That should give us some slight protection from the waves, but also swing us parallel to the shore, which should make sleeping a little easier.


Waiting out some nasty weather

Monday, June 19, 2017

Tuamotus: Tahanea Atoll

[Kyle]We arrived at Tahanea within three minutes of slack water to find an outgoing current of just under two knots. Once inside, we turned the corner and anchored right behind the motu next to the pass. There was a lot of coral, but there was also a lot of sand. Oh, how we love sand! We set the anchor on the edge of a decent-sized patch of it and then put out a buoy to float the last of the chain over a coral head beneath.


Passage and arrival at Tahanea - Kyle snorkels on the Anchor chain and we both enjoy the views

We did a little snorkeling to check that our anchor and chain were free of any coral and then snuck in a quick peek at some of the nearby gardens while there was still daylight. While making a dinner of the squash we had been gifted in Ua Pou, Maryanne threw some scraps overboard. Most of the fish didn’t seem to care, but we quickly discovered the colorful parrotfish LOVE little shredded bits of squash.

The next morning before we got underway, Maryanne took a handful of it with her on an early morning swim, which made her lots of friends.

Our stay at this particular anchorage was intended to be short. The sun was too low in the sky for spotting bommies when we arrived, so we waited until it was sufficiently high the next morning to see our way for a sail across the atoll the next spot.

There, we found three little motus fringed by a wide shelf of white sand. We gingerly approached one. The depth sounder went pretty rapidly from 10m to 2.5m and then stayed there. At 2.5m, we would only need to put out 20m of chain to have more than enough. We slowly scouted a circle with a slightly larger radius. It was all 2.5m Brilliant! We dropped the hook on beautiful, clean, white sand. There was no need to dive on the anchor – from the bow, we could see where it disappeared under the sand and every link of chain in between.


Donated fish, pretty views and Copra drying in the sun

We noticed an encampment on shore, so Maryanne prepared a goodie bag of treats and we swam ashore to meet the occupants. They turned out to be absent, so we left the package and walked the circumference of the island. The east side, facing the outside of the atoll was very different from the inside. Palm trees gave way to desert vegetation. The fringing water was only calf deep and was warmed by the sun. Little life was in evidence except for a few sand-colored minnows and lots of sea cucumbers.

The sandy beach gave way to rough coral and we found ourselves wading through the water in a line that staggered as we avoided disturbing the cucumbers.

Back on the inside, the water deepened and we continued our circuit by swimming. We saw a boat arrive and we went ashore to introduce ourselves.

At the camp were a brother and sister who spend three months a year harvesting coconuts for oil on the three little motus. She had noticed our package and in thanks brought out a big piece of freshly caught fish for us. We asked if there was anything else they might need. They insisted they didn’t and asked us if we would like anything. Well, if it’s not too much trouble, could you spare a couple of coconuts?

She explained there were no good eating coconuts in the immediate area, since they were all being processed. The big tool they use to get them out of the trees was on one of the other motus, but if we came back tomorrow, her brother could get us a few. Otherwise, if we could find one they might have missed, we were more than welcome to it.

We bid them adieu and walked the part of the beach we had missed while swimming. A little distance from the camp, we found two coconuts in the perfect state of readiness at the edge of the beach, which just fit in our sack as a homemade flotation device. We swam them back to Begonia, resting in a pool of beautiful blue bathwater.

When the sun was high enough again the next day, we moved to a different corner of the atoll. We would have been happy to stay on our idyllic little spot, but the pass was north of us, which would have meant getting back to it would be to go directly into the low winter sun. It’s very hard to impossible to spot hazards that direction, so we ‘tacked’ across it by heading to one corner with the afternoon sun off to one side. That would put the pass where it would be possible to get to it in the morning with the sun on the other side.


More snorkelling, more sharks, and heavenly views

Unlike the anchorage before, our spot was in deep enough water that we needed the full length of chain out. Maryanne attached a couple of floats to the chain as it went out and we were again able to float it over the coral heads surrounding the sandy spot with the anchor.

Rather than leave the very next morning, we took an extra day to get caught up on some things we had been neglecting. Maryanne reorganized our remaining food stores. I replaced one of our bilge pumps and the sea water tap with the ones we found at the hardware store in Taiohae. It was noon before we were able to don snorkel gear and return to fun mode.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tuamotus: Makemo Atoll

[Kyle]Given tides, daylight hours, and slack water, this passage can only realistically be started within a window of 1 hour on our departure date from Raroia. Surprisingly, 5 other boats also left Raroia at the same time and were making the passage to Makemo – so we all set off in a little clump of boats sailing in a cluster through the night.

The weather was such that, as soon as we cleared the pass, five of us deployed our spinnakers. Race Day in the middle of nowhere.

The spinnakers had us all going too fast, so as to arrive too early for slack the next morning. Most of the other boats went for average speed and took down their spinnakers at nightfall. Hedging against any wind decrease later on, we left ours up until midnight. By morning, we had left the crowd and sailed over the horizon.

When we had just under ten miles to go, I started reducing sail bit by bit until we were down to bare poles again. One by one, the crowd came up behind us and at sunrise, we all went through the pass again en masse. Actually, we ended up being the last one in line.


Sail to Makemo and into the pass

On the inside of the pass, the others turned into the anchorage at the adjacent village. We considered the same, as it was a lovely little village AND the supply ship was there, which would have meant fresh vegetables! We figured the village would be crowded enough with everybody else, so we shut down our engines, unrolled just a tiny amount of sail and continued on. The sun wasn’t high enough in the sky for optimal bommie spotting, so we wanted to be moving at a crawl until it was. Our plan was to go deeper into the atoll and anchor off one of the areas of palm fringed beauty – going solo, we had another 5 hours of sailing through the atoll to get to our anchorage. We spent that time dodging coral heads and mini reefs, pinching our selves at how lucky we were, and enjoying first the juice and then the flesh of our last coconut. Ahhhh… Lovely!

When we got to our anchorage, we were surprised and to find it deserted. There was a long, curving beach dotted with coral heads. With a little effort, we were able to deploy our anchor on a sandy shelf, off the edge of which our chain fell down to the depths before leaving the sand and curving upwards towards Begonia as she rested above a bommie.


Our first day

First order of business was to report our safe arrival and position and get the latest weather forecast. We get a great French forecast that has been run through a translator program and converted into English.. today’s forecast had the charming phrase “The sun be imposed on all archipelago Wednesday.” We think that is good news… and is probably how our French sounds to the locals… LOL

After verifying we were safely at anchor , we set off to snorkel around the few bommies (isolated coral heads) between us and the beach. WOW! there were lots of fish jetting off in all directions. One of the schools of sand-colored fish parted to go around us and we got a glimpse of the first shark. As we continued on, we saw a pair and then another pair. Eventually, we had six all around us. They are amazing to watch with their iridescent skin and the effortless way they move.


Snorkelling with Sharks

One big one – maybe six or seven feet long – was clearly getting annoyed at a bunch of remoras trying to attach themselves. He was darting through holes and sprinting away in an attempt to “scrape” them off. As he became more agitated, his mood spread to the others and then he started looking annoyed at Maryanne for being in the way as he darted by just a little too close. Time to go!

We had expected the others to be spending the morning in the village and then heading to us in the afternoon. As the sunset approached, we realized they had stayed behind and the whole scene was ours. Lovely. Our own private tropical beach! Later, when it got dark, I went outside. Apart from the stars and our anchor light, there were no lights of any kind; no street lamps, no porch lights, no campfires, not even any lighted buoys. It was magnificent isolation.

Day 2 – We were up early and made a plan to spend the whole day snorkeling, starting with a walk to the end of the beach before swimming a mile-long reef jutting into the atoll. We had just started the meandering trip home when I spotted the first mast on the horizon. Soon after, four spinnakers appeared. It was going to get crowded!

By the time we got back to Begonia, the first boat, a Dutch couple with a Swiss guest, was just setting anchor. Then, one by one, the group from the day before arrived. The character of the place was much changed. Now our desert island anchorage took on the atmosphere of the French Polynesian Boat Rally. We didn’t mind. They are all really nice people. Even No Thanks appears friendly, just not to us. We’d had the place to ourselves already and it was nice to see some boaty busyness for entertainment. We have bumped into this group several times since the Marquesas and they always seem to travel as a fleet. That would be a bit much for the independent streak in me. It’s nice sometimes to go to an anchorage that’s not full or to not have to coordinate every shore excursion.


Snorkelling is so nice here - and the views above water are pretty amazing too

The next morning, which we had planned to do then before we even got there, we pulled up anchor for a quick trip across the lagoon to a spot a little closer to the west pass for the subsequent day’s exit. We planned to find a sandy spot behind a reef and do some more snorkeling before getting to bed early.

When we got to our spot, we found only tiny patches of sand with lots of coral. We moved to our second choice and found the same. It was also the same at our third. We decided to give up on our plan and head to the anchorages adjacent the pass.

When we got to the first of these, we found the same thing. We moved to the anchorage on the other side and still could not find a clear spot. At one in deep water that seemed marginal, we lowered the anchor and immediately got it snagged in coral in the unseen depths. Yike!

We returned to the first and after much searching, found a place with even depths on a bottom we couldn’t see too well. We dropped the anchor and it held.

Once the checklist was done, I donned mask and fins and jumped in to survey the situation. When the bubbles from my entry cleared, I was horrified. My stomach would have jumped into my throat, but with the buoyancy and being in the southern hemisphere, it went some other direction. What I saw was the Manhattan skyline in dead coral heads for as far as I could see. Coral heads three to eight feet tall were separated by little six-inch patches of sand. Our anchor was on one of these, upside down lying under a small pile of chain. The rest of our chain was draped over others like Silly String.

Knowing we at least wouldn’t drag, I started an outwardly spiraling search for any suitable patch of sand within a mile. I found one that was barely big enough and carefully tried to take bearings off various landmarks to figure out how we would get there and then swam the route to make sure it was deep enough.

On the way back to Begonia, I realized it was way too late in the day to move. The low sun made it hard to see the coral and I knew getting the anchor up was going to take a long time.

When I got home, I focused my energy on trying to mitigate our situation. I started by turning our anchor over and paying out the pile of chain in the hopes that we would be able to pull it all straight up without snagging anything. I then made several more descents, making my way along the chain, pulling it out from under overhangs and laying it on top. This was really difficult as it was just below ten meters, which is about my limit in salt water. When I got there, I only had about five seconds worth of exertion before I needed to be heading for the surface. Sometimes, I would be almost done with a task and push it for another five seconds, which made the ascent desperate. While I was down there, the need for air meant I had to work as fast as I could while exerting myself as little as possible. Oh, and concentrate on my whole body at once because getting a fin caught on something while fixating on what I was doing with my hands would be really bad. A couple of times, I was bracing myself against a coral head with my feet above me while my back was in the sand.

Once I had done that, since there was no way we were going to drag, I went about cranking up the excess chain since it was just more to snag. I did this manually so I could do it slowly and feel what was going on. When something got irrecoverably stuck, I would dive back in and start muscling chain again. After going through this cycle three or four times I got to where I was almost not freaking out. Maryanne set up a couple of our big spherical fenders as floats and I swam them out as far as I could, lifting the chain with one arm and fighting the buoyancy of the float with the other until I could clip them together. This floated the chain above the nastiest looking obstruction. When we were done, we had only enough chain to hold us down, plus the floating portion to absorb any shocks.

When I finally got out of the water for the last time, the last of the light was disappearing from the sky. What was supposed to have been our easy day of fun had left us both physically and emotionally exhausted. All we had time for was a quick dinner and then we fell into a fitful sleep.

NEXT DAY

I had trouble staying asleep because I was anticipating lots of trouble getting the anchor up. Slack water at the pass was at 8:45 and we needed time to do all of our usual prep, plus a couple of dives, PLUS time to get to the actual pass. At 4:00, I finally gave up and got out of bed.

Much to both of our delight, our anchor and chain came up with only a minimal fuss. There were couple of spots where we had to go left or right to free the chain and Maryanne had to work the anchor up and down a little to free it. Mercifully, it didn’t end up being necessary to get wet.

Our (new – grr!) underwater camera had started playing up and would no longer reliably transfer photos to our computer via the provided data cable. While we were in Taiohae, Maryanne was able to download an app that would allow us to transfer them to her iPhone wirelessly as a workaround. Then she would transfer them from her phone to the computer. One of the cool things the app will let us do is view on the iPhone what the camera is seeing. She mounted the camera at the edge of the trampoline right above the bow roller. This made it easy for me back at the helm to see which way the chain was pulling and thus which way I needed to steer the boat to relieve the tension. Thus, she was able to pull up the chain without getting it wrapped around something new.


Our track looking for someplace to anchor, and then the remote cam setup to view the chain from the helm.

We were ahead of schedule, so we decided to try the pass anyway. It was impossible to see any bommies into the glare of the rising sun, but since we had zig-zagged all over the area looking for a decent spot to anchor the day before, I was able to follow our track until we were safely in the channel.

We got out into the open sea with only a little turbulence and were soon able to shut down the engines, turn downwind to our next island and deploy the spinnaker. It was barely after sunrise and already the day was WAY better.

A few hours later, we heard a member of the FPBR talking to one of the others about anchoring near the pass. We got on the radio and told them what we had seen. They all decided to keep on going if they too found it difficult. For the life of us, we can’t figure out why that spot is labeled as “Anchorage”.

{Maryanne: No doubt we'll now hear from 100 other folks that found plenty of sand to anchor in and were just fine... Please don't rush to tell us if that is you}