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.


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}

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