Log 9
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Log 9 - Tuamotus to Societies
(August 8, 2004 - latest)


August 8, 2004 - August 25, 2004 (Dana)

On August 8, we quietly motored out of Taiohae Bay to begin our 500 mile voyage to the Tuamotus.  The Tuamotu archipelago is made up of 76 coral atolls, 30 of which are permanently uninhabited and 46 of which support small populations.  An atoll is a ring-like coral island and reef that encloses a lagoon. Atolls were once volcanic islands around which coral reefs formed, but after thousands of years, the volcanic island has eroded away until it is completely submerged, leaving only the ring of coral remaining at sea level.  Some of the atolls have unbroken circular reefs, but many others consist of a chain of coral islets (motus), with gaps that can be used as passes for boats to enter the lagoon.  Rain is the only source of fresh water on these atolls, and the coral soil means the produce that can grow there is limited.  However, coconut palms thrive in the Tuamotus, the fishing is good, and the lagoons are home to most of the pearl farms that supply jewelry stores throughout "Tahiti and her islands".   

The nature of the Tuamotus requires that they be navigated with extreme care to avoid colliding with the reefs, which could tear up a hull and swallow a boat in a blink of an eye.  In fact, over the past few hundred years, so many ships have mistakenly ran into and wrecked upon the atolls of the archipelago that it has been referred to as the "Dangerous Archipelago".  The primary cause of such wrecks is that the atolls rarely rise more than 10 feet above sea level (with coconut palms adding another 50-75 feet of height), and so they are visible at best for 7 to 10 miles in clear weather and at worst for only 100 yards in darkness or rainy weather.  Therefore, boats navigating through the archipelago must keep a close lookout.  For those wishing to enter into the interior lagoon of an atoll, there's an added challenge of navigating the passes through the reef, which usually must be done at slack water (the time of which can be estimated based on things like moonrises and low and high tides) to avoid strong currents and agitated waters that can overpower a vessel.  In addition, even once you've made it into the pass, there are scattered coral heads to avoid hitting and you must watch the water for changes in color indicating shallow depths or jutting coral heads.  For that reason, it is advisable to enter on a clear day with the sun at such an angle that it is not glaring in your eyes.  Nonetheless, so long as proper care is taken, sailors should have no trouble navigating the Tuamotus.  And once anchored safely inside the inner lagoon, the atolls treat you to an enchantingly unique environment of bright jade and blue waters thriving with marine life, motus covered in coconut palms, and small villages with locals (mostly black pearl cultivators, copra producers and fishermen) who tend to be warm and welcoming to cruisers. 

After getting under way from Nuku Hiva we studied our charts and cruising books to decide which atolls in the Tuamotus to stop at, and which passes to use.  There are so many we would have liked to have visited, but we felt like we had to restrict ourselves to a limited schedule to fit in both the Tuamotus and the majority of the Society Islands before leaving for Hawaii in early November.  So we picked two -- Ahe and Rangiroa.  The four-day voyage getting to Ahe was quite pleasant.  The weather was calm so we sailed some and motored some, but there was very little swell so it was a comfortable ride.  During the night of the 10th we left our fishing line out and caught a large squid, which made for tasty calamari the next morning after draining him of loads of ink and dislodging his suctiony tentacles from the cutting board.  The rest of the day was leisurely, as we didn't want to arrive at Ahe until slack water the next morning.  So we had a spa day, giving ourselves manicures and pedicures and luxuriating in a warm freshwater shower.  By nightfall, the seas were extremely calm and glassy with all the stars reflected perfectly on the surface.  We passed through patches of bioluminescence different than any we'd seen.  Usually, we see a sparkling luminescence or a green glow that lights up when the water is activated by our hull, a dolphin, a hand, or anything else passing through it.  But this night, we saw patches of luminescence coming alive like giant spotlights being turned on under water, and suddenly there would be large circular patches of lit water all around us.  With our sails down and our motor off we let ourselves drift along and enjoy the serenity of the calm night and the spectacle of the bioluminescence and reflected stars in the water all around us, as well as dozens of stars shooting through the sparkling sky overhead. 


Shortly before sunrise, we started motoring to arrive at the pass at the time we calculated for slack water.  As the sun rose and we made our way along the coast of Ahe, we saw another boat, Freelance, headed for the pass as well.  Freelance is a 90-year old gaff-rigged wood boat with a tanbark (reddish) mainsail that we had seen in Taiohae Bay and watched with some awe and amusement.  She was sailed by a single handler who didn't like to use his motor, so we would watch him tack back and forth very slowly making his way into and out of the bay.  One time while he was slowly tacking his way in, we watched from our boat, then took Ker-Les to the dinghy dock, walked to town, ran some errands, bought baguettes and cheese, walked back to the dinghy dock, then saw him still sailing, only about half way into the bay.  He was a perfect picture of patience, independence and love of traditional sailing.  So when we saw him this morning heading for the pass at the same time we were, we figured he of all people knew what he was doing and must have calculated slack water to be at the same time we did.

As Freelance sailed for the pass, we radioed hello and motored slowly past to begin our first entry into an atoll.  I was at the helm, and Chris was aloft standing on the top ratline to get a clearer view of the depths and obstacles beneath the water's surface, as well as to capture some video of the event.  We approached from about a mile off at just the right angle to clear the outer reef and the breakers rolling onto it.  The pass was indeed fairly slack and calm, and the only thing a little hairy about it was how close we came to land as we passed between the motus on either side.   As we motored through the only deep area between the motus, land rose above the water less than a boat length to our port, and shallow water with coral heads near the surface were immediately to our right.  But we easily made our way into the inner lagoon, where a well-marked channel helped us avoid coral heads while crossing to the opposite side where we could anchor off Tenukuiara Village.  While selecting a spot to drop the anchor, we quickly noted that even the anchorage area was dotted with unmarked coral heads, and we carefully dodged them and selected a spot where we could have enough swinging room without bumping into one. 

Once we were settled at anchor, we prepared our welcome drinks and watched Freelance sailing through the channel.  Eventually, he gracefully tacked into the anchorage and adjusted his lightweight jib to maneuver to a spot a little beyond us and drop his anchor, all flawlessly, and perfectly silhouetted in the morning sun.  Chris in particular was in awe, and now had a new hero.  Less than an hour later his new hero was rowing over to our boat to say hi and we invited him to join us onboard.  He was Bruno, a Frenchman from Corsica who lived in Canada for several years and so he spoke English very well, albeit with a thick but endearing French accent.  He's a movie set designer by trade, but has always dreamed of sailing around the world and has been living his dream life for the past year or so.   He looks, however, like he's been sailing all his life, with a deep tropical tan, long curly hair and a shell necklace hanging on his usually shirtless chest.  After the introductions, we exchanged admiration for each other's boats and wood boats in general, and how cool it was that our two wood boats were the only two boats at this beautiful little spot in the world.  Chris then told Bruno how impressed he was with his abilities and the fact that he sailed through the pass and into the anchorage.  Bruno explained that he loves to sail and never used his motor much (partly to save on fuel costs), but now his engine isn't working so he couldn't use it if he wanted to.  When we think of all the cruisers whose trips come to a halt when something as unnecessary as their refrigerator or air conditioning stops working, its refreshing to see someone who just continues on unwaivered when something as major as his engine stops working.  What amenities do you really need on your boat anyway?  Bruno's motor actually could be easily fixed, but I think he enjoys the purity of sailing without it.  Chris then went on to say how it was also impressive that under sail he managed to arrive at the pass at exactly the time of slack water.  To that Bruno replied:  "Oh, was that when slack water was supposed to be?  I just went to bed for the night and decided that if I was near the pass when I woke up I'd go in, otherwise I'd go on to Rangiroa.  I woke up and there it was!"  This would come to be Bruno's M.O. -- to acknowledge his luck and instinct more than his own skills.  He claims his nose is his radar (he instinctively wakes up if there's another boat or land in the vicinity), and rarely attributes any of his accomplishments to his own prowess.  But part of that may be just Bruno's entertaining way of telling stories, always with a smile and humor.  When pressed, he'll admit that he does take some precautions, and was going to skip Ahe if the currents in the pass looked too rough to sail through. 

About an hour into our visit with Bruno, we noticed a surprisingly large cargo ship heading our way, and then we were told we'd have to move further from the village quay so the ship would have room to maneuver.  We re-anchored further away, then eventually Bruno returned to his boat and we were quickly enticed to explore the new underwater environment around us.  We snorkeled just in the anchorage area, but there were plentiful coral formations and even underwater pearl farms to check out.  We also discovered for the first time pahua, giant clams with large overhanging lips in a variety of bright colors that they suck in as they clam up when someone approaches.  Of course we also checked our anchor, and made sure there were no coral heads that we would swing into if the wind direction shifted.  We were clear, but Bruno's Freelance was flanked by a good-sized coral head (potato, as he calls them) on each side.  That night, he swung into one of them, scratching his hull a bit, so in the morning he pulled up anchor and drifted over to a clearer spot. 

Later that day, the kids of the village decided to check out their newest residents.  They started off by sending three girls on a reconnaissance mission.  After paying a visit to Bruno, they kayaked over to our boat and we let them onboard.  The three girls -- Jennifer (pretty and sweet, never having visited cruisers before), Natalia (the outgoing and confident spokesperson) and Soledad (a quiet, pretty girl who was a tomboy and wore no shirt) -- where polite and friendly, and all around ages 8-10.  They spoke no English but were very patient with our French as they asked lots of questions and explored our boat.  As nightfall approached, we said they could return the next day and we'd take them sailing in Ker-Les, and gave them a time of 2pm to come by.

The next day was a Friday, but the village kids were on summer vacation so they were not in school.  Instead, as we discovered glancing over to Freelance, Jennifer, Soledad, Natalia and three boys were all on Bruno's boat, climbing around like little monkeys and jumping off his spreaders.  Around noon, they couldn't wait for 2pm any longer and started kayaking and swimming over to our boat.  We let them all on, and the girls presented us with four black pearls as a gift, which we appreciated very much.  The six then proceeded to explore Ker-Mor and before we knew it they were climbing our ratlines and jumping off our spreaders.  At one point there was a kid sitting on each spreader and a couple more coming up the ratlines, and, never having thought we'd ever allow a kid on the spreaders at all, we instead found ourselves insisting loudly that there could only be one kid on the spreaders at a time.  While Chris kept an eye on the three boys and Soledad playing above deck, I showed Jennifer and Natalia around below and gave them a couple gifts - Natalia a tank top and Jennifer a red bandana.  Jennifer looked so cute and pleased in her bandana that I whipped out my pirate costume paraphernalia and dressed them up.  We took pictures and hung out while Chris set up the sailing rig on Ker-Les.   The rest of the afternoon, we took turns sailing with the kids, eating popcorn and pamplemousse, supervising as little hands rummaged through our stuff and basically trying to keep the kids (mostly the boys) from getting completely out of hand.  At the end of the day, we literally had to kick them off the boat, and we collapsed of exhaustion but having had a fun time.

As Saturday rolled around, a third cruising boat entered into our anchorage, the large fiberglass Beneteau sloop Drala Magic, breaking up our little wood boat monopoly.  We had met Roy (owner) and Charlie and Victor (crew) of Drala Magic back in Nuku Hiva (they came to our wedding), but we had never spent any time alone with them and gotten to know them, a deficiency we'd have the pleasure of alleviating shortly.  After sailing Ker-Les to a reef and snorkeling in some amazingly bright shallow waters, a quietly kind boy, Wilson, kayaked over to get a closer look at us and then had some fun pushing us back to the anchorage with his kayak behind Ker-Les, which had become underpowered by light winds.  We had him drop us off at Drala Magic, and we climbed onboard and joined Bruno in visiting with our new neighbors. 

The more we've gotten to know the Drala Magic guys, the more we love them.  One of the most endearing things about them is how different they all are, but how well work together as crew and as friends.  Roy, the sixty-something year-old owner, was born in England, then lived in Canada, then in the U.S., where he started a very successful company and worked day and night to earn as much money as possible.  He had fancy homes, fancy friends, an obscene amount of expensive clothes, etc.  Work and money were everything to him, until he and his wife divorced and he decided he wanted to change his life even more.  He sold the business to her, and moved to Cabo San Lucas.  At some point he bought Drala Magic and decided to go cruising around the world, and he's never been happier.  Enter Victor, the twenty or thirty-something year old Mexican who used to be Mr. Cabo party animal working at Señor Frog's and living with female strippers.  At some point, he decided to change his life by stopping drinking, the five year anniversary of which he's now celebrating.  That of course does not make him any less fun to be around, and he is a happy and likable guy.  Victor met Roy in Cabo while working in a restaurant then ran into him a year later, at which point Roy had bought the boat and asked Roy if he wanted to crew.   By the next morning he was packed and ready to go. Charlie, a forty-something American who used to work for a pharmaceutical company in San Diego, came on a while later.  Charlie is a spiritual guy who is very in touch with his body and emotions.  He has a loving and deep-thinking personality, with an impressively healthy and energetic body to boot.  Sometime after a divorce, he found himself like Roy and Victor living in Cabo, working as a licensed masseur and health educator of sorts.  After one of his massage clients told him about Roy and that he should consider crewing with him, he likewise ditched land-life to round out the Drala Magic team. 

After visiting with the guys on Drala Magic, and yelling at kids who swam over to our boat and Bruno's while we were away to get off, Chris and I dinghied ashore and spent the rest of the day exploring the atoll while, unbeknownst to us, the boys took our dinghy out for some touring of the bay.  The next day was Sunday, and the kids' last day of vacation before going back to school, so they came out in full force to visit us on Ker-Mor once again.  We were busy doing other things, but told them that they could go rowing in our boat as long as they didn't go out further than a certain identified distance.  When the boys took it further than they were supposed to, all bets were off and Chris hailed them back to the boat where he retrieved back Ker-Les and sent them on their way.  We made the boys who broke Chris' rule swim back, while I rowed the girls and the youngest boy to shore.  Once there, the kids wanted to give me a tour of their village, which they did, a whole bunch of little people swarming about me.  The girls all wanted to hold my hand so I had one or two of them on each side, and those that weren't holding my hand wanted to carry something of mine like my camera case or water bottle.  It must have been a funny sight to the local adults to see me touring around with my swarming posse.  We visited their school, they picked coconuts and fruit from trees for me, showed me a shark's head in the lagoon, etc.  Eventually, we made our way to Jennifer's house so I could meet her mom.  When we arrived, Jennifer showed her some pictures I had printed out for Jennifer of all the activities we'd been doing.  Jennifer's mom was very kind and thankful that we had been warm hosts to her daughter, and asked if Chris and I could come by the next morning before we left for Rangiroa to say goodbye.  I said of course, and the kids escorted me back to the dinghy.

The morning of the 17th, we, Freelance, Drala Magic and a fourth cruising boat that had arrived, Horace (which magically tamed the local kids one afternoon where we saw them all quietly coloring on deck), all prepared to sail overnight to Rangiroa.  When Chris and I were ready to go, we dinghied ashore and walked to Jennifer's house.  Her mom was there to greet us and then whispered to Jennifer through the window that we were there.  After a minute or two Jennifer came out with two bunches of shell necklaces she had made and put them around our necks.  Her mom said she'd been working on them all evening.  After that we spoke at length with her mom (who spoke no English).  She was very kind and wished we were staying so she could make dinner for us and introduce us to all the local foods.  In retrospect, I'm not quite sure why we didn't just stay an extra day, but its hard to reverse to a decision that its time to move on.  She thanked us for being so friendly to Jennifer, and making her first experience visiting a cruising boat a good one.  She said that Jennifer took quite a liking to us, and was very sad we were leaving.  We took quite a liking to Jennifer as well, and took her address so we could keep in touch.  We said we'd wave to them as we sailed out of the bay, exchanged hugs and kisses, and headed back to Ker-Mor.

Raising our anchor took some fancy footwork with Ker-Mor to unweave the chain from the numerous low coral heads it zigzagged around over the past five days.  But after 20 minutes or so we got it up and were waiving back at Jennifer, her mom and her little sister as we pulled away from the village to cross back through the lagoon and exit the pass at slack water.  But now that Chris had seen Bruno sail through the pass, there was no way we were going to motor.  We hoisted our sails and eased through the channel and the pass to Chris' delight.  Freelance, Horrace and Drala Magic were not far behind us, but we all disappeared from each other's view by nightfall. 


We arrived at Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the Tuamotus, before sunrise.  "Rangi" has two passes to choose from, Tiputa and Avatoru, each of which has anchorages nearby that we planned to visit.  However, we arrived at the first pass, Tiputa, while it was still dark, so we continued on to the further Avatoru pass to enter shortly after sunrise, around the time of slack water.  Again, thanks to Bruno, now we had to sail through passes.  This time, even though it was approximately slack water there was a strong current to fight and not a lot of wind to power us, so we inched through at about 1 knot, with Chris aloft taking video again.  It took us about an hour to go 3/4 mile, but we did it without the motor.  Once inside the lagoon, we said screw it and turned the motor on so it wouldn't take the whole morning getting to an anchorage.  The first spot where we dropped anchor turned out to be uncomfortably windy and rolly, so we ended up continuing on to a more protected spot back by Tiputa.  There, we reunited with Freelance, Horrace, and Drala Magic (all of which came in the Tiputa pass at sunrise) and about 10 other boats anchored in the roomy nook of the huge lagoon, big enough to hold the island of Tahiti. 

The anchorage at Tiputa was crystal blue and picturesque, and a nearby resort with the over-the-water bungalows that are so popular in French Polynesia extended out towards the boats.  It seems everyplace we go we discover some new form of marine life, and here it was unicorn fish, which we would feed from our boat to get a closer look at them and their "horns" poking up out of the water as they snatched bread.  Tiputa also had a small spread-out town with a grocery store, an amenity we had not had access to since Taiohae Bay.  So we excitedly bought fresh baguettes (always a bargain at around 45¢ each) as well as diet coke and other highly over-priced food items.  Unfortunately for Drala Magic, the store did not sell any alcohol so they took their dinghy a couple miles to the next town to renew their precious Hinano beer stores.  The event was cause for celebration, so they had us and Bruno over for dinner.  Two nights later, we had the whole gang over to our boat for apps and drinks, and we hung out and talked all night, and awaited a text message on our sat phone informing us of the outcome of a major back surgery my dad was undergoing.  When word arrived, we all toasted my dad and were thankful for good news. 

Aside from grocery shopping and bonding with Bruno and the Drala Magic guys, the highlight of Rangiroa was the snorkeling.  Our first day of snorkeling Chris snorkeled the pass, a unique experience where you float with the incoming current, while I manned the dinghy.  The current, however, was being uncooperative by going out instead of coming in.  But we enjoyed a show being put on by some dolphins playing in the pass' waves, and then moved on to a nearby motu where we anchored the dinghy and enjoyed clear views of colorful fish and varied coral formations.  The next day Chris manned the dinghy as I snorkeled the pass, catching up with Victor, Charlie and Bruno who were doing the same.  But again, the current was being uncooperative by going the wrong way.  I decided to stick with it anyway, and Chris left me in the hands of our friends and their dinghy as he headed back to the boat for a rest.  Victor, Charlie, Bruno and I stayed in the pass for a while, then returned to the motu that Chris and I had snorkeled the previous day.  Those three turned out to be fun to snorkel with, partly because they look so serious in their full snorkeling regalia:  wet-suits; gloves; knives strapped to legs; etc.  But also because they seem to have unusually good eyes for spotting things underwater.  Victor in particular, will appear out of nowhere and hand me a cool shell or show me sharks that I hadn't even noticed swimming nearby.  But Chris and I manage to find interesting things as well, and have a growing shell collection that Chris ambitiously seeks to grow when we're snorkeling though bored by it on beaches.  This day, I also managed to find the toothy grin of a large moray eel about 2 feet from my face as I passed over a coral formation.  That was a little too close for comfort, and I turned around to go watch some sharks instead.  What I enjoyed most though were huge schools of brightly-colored fish that took an interest in us when Victor dispersed some crackers and remained swimming all around us long after the crackers were gone.  One large school would follow the guys down to a rock and swim all around them in a big circle, a great view of which I enjoyed from above.  At the end of it all, we hauled ourselves into the dinghy while light rain created a bright rainbow, and Charlie dropped us off at our respective boats to warm up.


Two days later on the 23rd, Chris and I left Rangiroa for Tahiti, our first stop in the Society Islands.  The first day of our 2-night / 3-day trip was a little choppy, and on day two we were hit with several squalls.  Later that afternoon, Chris said with some relief "the seas are calmer now".  Immediately afterward, a rogue wave splashed over the side and drenched him.  By nightfall, the winds had increased and during my watch I observed the waves building to intimidating heights.  Large swells can be fairly comfortable if they are spaced far apart, but when winds are newly freshened the swells tend to be closer together and these were breaking and tossing us around uncomfortably.  Nonetheless, Ker-Mor handled the waves beautifully, surging up and over them with a graceful force. The winds continued building overnight, and we were reefed down on our approach to Tahiti.  It was not until our jib tore away from its boom that we decided to whip out our handheld wind meter and see exactly how strong the winds were.  Lo and behold, they were blowing consistently in the 30's and gusting into the 40's.  Thankfully, as soon as we entered the Papeete pass, the barrier reef calmed the seas and the lee of the island blocked the winds.    We entered the harbor, hung a right, and followed the channel between the island and its barrier reef to an area called Maeva Beach as pirogues sliced through the lagoon all around us. 

August 25, 2004 - September 30, 2004 (Chris)

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