March 22nd – May 3rd, 2021
After a week of cleaning, reprovisioning and a bit of exploring Pape’ete it was time to leave Tahiti and head out into the Tuamotu Archipelago. Mid-morning, we maneuvered our way out of the very tight fairway at Marina Tiana and made the necessary radio calls to pass by the airport. As we got close to the East Airport boundary we heard over the radio “SV Atica hold your station”. Staying in one place was not so simple with the current pushing us toward the end of the runway and we had to do several loops to not drift into the restricted area. After what seemed to be more than enough time for us to get across the runway and seeing no airplanes moving, we called back to the port control. We were firmly reminded to hold position and wait for the all clear. Shortly after two tiny airplanes appeared on the runway and took off. Then we were hailed on the radio and cleared to continue on through the channel. At the Papeete Pass we were again greeted by a huge pod of dolphins and there were surfers on each side of the pass entrance. We motored about an hour to the North East Point of Tahiti called Point Venus, named because it is where Captain Cook and his crew watched the planet Venus transit in front of the sun in 1767. It was the first and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by astronomer’s to accurately measure the distance between planets in our solar system. After a week in the Marina, it was time for a swim and we jumped in with snorkels and fins. The water was warm but too murky and deep to see the bottom. We swam around and under the boat and saw all the goose neck barnacles that grew on the passage, more alarming was a crack at the back of the keel in a place that we had applied a patch the last time the boat was hauled out of the water. The possibilities of needing to haul the boat out of the water in the remote South Pacific put a dark cloud over the afternoon and made the planned overnight passage to Tikehau that much more stressful. Austin got out the Splash Zone, a fishy smelling underwater epoxy, and smeared it over the patch and we agreed that more inspection and evaluation would need to be done when we arrived in Tikehau. The seas and wind were favorable for the overnight passage and we ended up arriving close to Tikehau around 3AM and hove two to wait for daylight to enter the pass. Once inside we kept to the marked channel that wove through hundreds of bombies (clumps of coral that very in size and are often just under the surface) to get to the SW anchorage. SV Lorien and one other sailboat were already in the anchorage.
As soon as we landed on the beach it was clear we had arrived in tropical paradise. The sand and coral beach jetted out to a deep hole of water that was fed by shallow water causing the temperature was warm. As we lay and chatted in our ‘hot tub’ with the other cruisers in the anchorage baby black tip sharks swam by. We foraged for coconuts and Austin couldn’t wipe the grin off his face while he got to work chopping them open with his machete. Most days the wind was strong and we watched Chris kite board around the anchorage and Austin even got a lesson with the kite. On a calmer day Chris and Austin took turns on the foil board being towed behind the dinghy. One morning we hopped on De Lorien, SV Lorien’s dinghy, to check out the next islet over. We found a shallow section of water that looked like a flowing river with water coming into the atoll over the reef. We walked up “stream”, put on our snorkels and let the current take us like a magic carpet ride over the bright colored coral, tropical fish and small Black Tip sharks. Another day we were snorkeling along and Elise spotted a huge red octopus with its arms waving in the current. We all swam over to get a closer look and the octopus was not scared of us at all and let us get within a few feet of it. One of the things that we noticed right away about the Tuamotus was that the sea life is not afraid of humans and you can swim right up to fish without them darting away. Austin even grabbed a small grouper by the tail. There are likely several reasons why the sea life is not very skittish but one possibly factor could be that the fear of getting ciguatera really puts a damper on the fishing in the area. Ciguatera is a toxin that is found in some of the reef fish in French Polynesia, if you eat the wrong fish the symptoms may include diarrhea, vomiting, numbness, itching, dizziness, weakness and the feeling of hot/cold reversed. With the risk being high and the freezer stocked with ahi tuna from the passage from Hawaii we decided the risk was not worth the reward. Between the high likelihood of ciguatera and the healthy shark population (competition), Austin’s spear gun would be staying on its shelf down below here in French Polynesia.
After a good few days playing in paradise, the crack by the keel could no longer be ignored. When we opened up the floor boards the small floor support at the aft end of the keel was separated by about half an inch from the hull. If we needed a reminder of how hard the passage from Hawaii was, this was it. The carbon reinforcements we had applied before leaving WA were likely too stiff and when the boat flexed in really rough seas, they had popped loose and you could fit your fingers underneath. This was by no means good but with Austin’s skills it was fixable and something he could tackle in the water. What a relief! Austin spent several afternoons grinding and prepping surfaces to be filled and tabbed with fiberglass. A very small amount of sea water was seeping into the bilge so Austin applied another round of Splash Zone inside and out. They do say cruising is doing boat work in exotic places…
Toau – Valentine’s Bay
From Tikehau we had an uneventful two-night passage to the false pass on the North side of Toau. A woman named Valentine lives with her husband and nephew in the small bay that is formed by an opening in the reef. They maintain seven mooring balls (floats tied to big chunks of coral) and sell pearls and coconuts to the cruisers that stop by. This was the spot for our boat family reunion with Atica, Lorien and Sophie all back together. Harvey and crew Frank from SV Sophie left Hawaii a month or so before us and went first to the Marquesas Islands so we planned to try to cross paths with them somewhere in the Tuamotus. It was like we had never been apart, sunset beers, group snorkeling missions and exploring the palm forests. For Julie’s birthday we had a big group dinner aboard Lorien with an amazing sunset view. We bought a few pearls from Valentine and learned about her childhood where her grandfather kept kidnapping her as a child because he thought she looked like his deceased wife and would take her to Toau. She said one time her father came to steal her back on a small boat with a 2hp motor from an island 25 miles away! She was definitely a character and was convinced that covid was the second coming and that Catholics were the cause because they prayed to Mary (who is not god), and Mary is tired!?!
One morning one of the other boats in the anchorage who were divers organized a dinghy convoy outside the pass to the dive site called Yellow Dog. The snorkeling was excellent and we saw all kinds of colorful fish and coral. We snorkeled over a dark hole and a big shark came out of the deep to check us out. Luckily by this point we were getting more used to swimming with sharks since pretty much every time we get in the water, we see at least a few. Sharks were constantly swimming around the boat and didn’t seem very interested in us. One day Harvey decided that he wanted to see what would happen if he was to spear a fish. Just the sound of the spear gun trigger brought a dozen sharks in right away and they swam around in tight fast circles. It was evident that the sharks would be the only ones getting a fish dinner by way of a spear gun. On the far side of the bay there was a fish trap where fish could swim into a spiral shape formed by staked out netting and then would not be able to get out against the current. This was one of Valentine and her husband’s primary food sources. Unfortunately, fish were not the only things getting stuck in the trap. We saw her husband kill at least half a dozen sharks with his spear and just toss them out of the trap. Our diver friend had said he was trying to convince them to stop killing the sharks caught in the trap, but it is an imperfect world and subsistence living doesn’t always align with conservation.
We explored the motu (island) on the far side of the bay where an abandoned shack had been taken over by bright orange coconut crabs. There were piles of crabs on everything. One coconut could have over a dozen crabs on top of it and there were so many you could hear them all clambering around. We chopped into a few coconuts and got to see the life cycle from a super green nut, to brown and one that had gone to seed. One evening we all played Kubb on the beach and cooked dinner on a beach fire. It was fun to spend the days with good friends in such a beautiful setting. On the moonlit ride back in the dinghy a flying fish flew onto Elise’s lap attracted by her headlamp.
Toau- Gilligan’s Island
When it was time to move on, we all sailed around the outside of Toau to the pass that allowed us into the lagoon. We anchored for one night in the protected NE corner of the atoll and then we decided to move a few miles down, away from the crowd (five other cruising sailboats) to a small sandbar with just a few palm trees. This was definitely next level anchoring. We nosed Atica up into 12’ of water dropped the anchor and backed off into 30’ of water with our chain floated by buoys over chunks of coral. Our new anchorage had us thinking about Gilligan’s Island and all the other quintessential shipwreck/deserted island movies. We snorkeled amongst giant clams, read in a hammock between two palm trees and went fly fishing out on the reef flats. We kept saying it can’t get more perfect than this!
It was hard to say goodbye to Toau but with no more fresh food in our stores and rumors of a Wednesday supply ship full of veggies in Fakarava we pulled anchor. We had a lovely sail to the pass inside the atoll with Lorien right next to us. Harvey arrived at the pass just before us and radioed that the entrance looked rough. This happens when the current coming out of the pass (sometimes up to 5 knots) meets the opposing ocean waves and swell outside the pass. For this reason, timing your arrival and departure is very critical for each atoll. Harvey decided to get a little closer to check it out and was quickly sucked sideways into the peak of the outgoing current. As he got into the worst of the current Sophie thrashed up and down and he radioed for us not to follow his approach. The sight of Sophie jumping out of the water made all of our stomachs drop and we for sure did not want to take the same approach out of the atoll. Chris and Austin discussed treating the exit like a river rapid over the radio and we snuck out the side of the pass where the current was weaker. Austin had Atica pointing directly at the coral reef but in actuality we were moving out of the pass at an angle being pulled by the current. We encountered three messy waves but nothing compared to the wild ride that Sophie had experienced. After the excitement of exiting the pass the relaxing 20-mile sail/race to Fakarava was much appreciated.
Fakarava – North
We arrived in the town of Rotoava at the North end of Fakarava around noon and tied up to one of the public mooring balls. The anchorage was very deep so we couldn’t see the bottom which felt weird after the shallow anchorages we had been in most recently. We took the dinghy to the large concrete pier where the supply ships tie up and went to check out the provisions at the four small grocery stores that most closely resemble a mini mart gas station in the US. We picked up a few pears, cabbage, potatoes and eggs but were surprised that onions were nowhere to be found! We soon learned that the supply ship we were expecting on Wednesday was out on maintenance for the week so there was no new food deliveries to be expected. There was a ship that came in while we were in town but it carried mostly drums of fuel, building materials and odds and ends like a unwrapped mattress and a brand new 4×4 Toyota Hylux truck that were all craned off the ship. We did learn about a farm stand that happened every Friday morning and were told we needed to be there by 5am if we wanted to get anything. This was not a joke, we got there about 5:10 am and were already about 6th in line and items were flying off the table. By 5:30 there would have been only a few odd items left. We were excited to get fresh locally grown lettuce, peppers and radishes but still no onions. We spent a few afternoons at Fakarava Yacht Services where a French family has set up a cruiser services business where you can hang out on the porch to use the internet and get your laundry washed and dried. We took advantage of being in civilization and had three family meals with Chris, Julie, Harvey and Frank in town. The first was an all-fish restaurant that served mostly raw variations of tuna, grouper and parrot fish on a deck over the water with black tip sharks splashing around underneath. The second was a more modern open-air restaurant where we had a tapas style lunch and cold beers one hot afternoon. On our final day in Rotoava we had lunch at Fakarava Grill and it quickly became everyone’s favorite, the burgers were juicy and the fries were topped with a slab of garlic butter. Eating out becomes a real treat when you are in such remote places and are mostly relying on the provisions you have onboard.
Fakarava – South
Feeling like we had fully explored the town we topped up on fuel and water at the concrete pier. The sail through the atoll to the South end of Fakarava was ideal. With smooth water and 15 knots of wind blowing over the reef, Atica scooted along on a comfortable beam reach. We even managed to miss all the rain squalls that passed over the island. We anchored next to SV Lorien at Motu Kokakoka and SV Sophie parted ways with us and heading to the Hirifa anchorage. Our boat family reunion had come to an end for this trip but I’m sure we will all reconnect in the future and are excited to hear about Harvey’s continued journey as he heads West.
We had arranged to go scuba diving with Top Dive Fakarava the next day so we motored the few miles to the mooring balls at the South Pass anchorage. It was extremely shallow and the bottom was covered in large coral bombies. We felt extremely lucky that there were two mooring balls available as there was not many good places to anchor and it was approaching sunset when we arrived. Sharks and fish were swimming around everywhere, especially when we would empty the sink strainer after doing dishes. Austin scrubbed the bottom of the boat and became particularly acquainted with several medium size grey reef sharks, black tips and a few remoras. One of the gray reef sharks had a research tag in its fin and Austin began to call it “Dog Tag” after repeated sightings, like a neighborhood dog. Remoras are like the rats of the sea and just about as gross looking. It seems that at every anchorage we would get a few that would “attach” themselves to Atica’s hull like they do to sharks and whales waiting for any scrap to float by.
Saturday was dive day so Chris brought his gear over to Atica and we waited to be picked up by the fancy RIB (rigid inflatable boat) dive boat. The South Pass of Fakarava is a world-famous dive site due to its huge shark population and is known as “the Wall of Sharks”. Due to the dive site’s remoteness our tanks were filled with Nitrox which allows you to stay deeper with less decompression time and reduces the risk of getting the bends. On our first dive we swam up current and hung onto dead coral boulders to watch as dozens of sharks circled overhead. We saw a huge Napoleon Wrasse and a few eagle rays on the pass wall. In between dives we had snacks on the pink sand beach and the dive master went over the dive plan for our second dive. Upon entry we all made our initial descent on a sandy patch called “the ski run” just at the seaward end of the pass and then followed the ski track of sand down to 60’ where we stopped on a ledge looking down toward the middle of the pass. The water was so clear that day that you could see all the way to the bottom and across to the other side (about 100’). This is where our first “wall of sharks” swam by. Next, we continued our descent following the current and tucked ourselves into a cave at about 100’ deep. Once we were all inside this cave the bubbles from our regulators were trapped so the sharks came even closer to us. Being in the cave was an out of body experience! It was unreal! Laying on our bellies at the mouth of a cave, it looked and felt like we were watching an Imax 3-D movie. If you wanted you could have reached out to touch the sharks that “hovered”, gently gliding into the current, just outside the cave. We could see at least a hundred sharks, mostly grey reef sharks, black tips and a few white tip reef sharks who can “sit” completely still on the sandy bottom. When it was time to leave the cave the dive master moved his hands to gesture that we would be parting a path through the sharks and on to our next viewing location. At another spot the sharks were all slowly moving into the current peacefully until they heard/sensed something and they all darted off in one direction towards the surface. It was amazing to see their alertness and speed especially since it was not directed at us. The end of the dive had us gliding at “high speed” in six feet of water over colorful coral and small reef fish including Parrotfish, Butterflyfish and Angelfish.
Over the next few days, we hung out with Chris and Julie on the pink and white sand beaches. There were plenty of palm trees to hang up the hammock for days of lounging and reading. We circumnavigated a few sand islets in our floaty chairs and Austin learned a new skill of Polynesian hat making. In the afternoons we floated the pass and Chris and Austin clanked metal together to “call” the sharks up from the bottom. Within a few seconds you would start to see the sharks circling up from the bottom. Elise and Julie clung to the dinghy to have a quick exit if necessary. One evening we had a very weird and overpriced buffet dinner at the pension (hotel) in the village. The one cool thing about the experience was that the whole restaurant was over the reef and had hundreds of black tip sharks swimming in only a few feet of water. They were all trying to get their share of the fish scraps from the restaurant so they swam quick and aggressively. Among the sharks we also saw a small octopus that almost completely blended in with the rocky coral around it. Most of our time in Fakarava was sunny but we had a few days of rain where we easily filled our water tanks and then some. Squalls and heavy rain come out of nowhere in the South Pacific so we have learned that even if it looks sunny its best to close up all the hatches whenever we leave the boat.
From the South Pass of Fakarava we made a slow overnight sail to Tahanea two atolls over. Tahanea is a nature reserve with only one house for the caretakers. We anchored near the pass and were picked up by Chris and Julie to go ashore. What started out as a casual beach combing stroll turned into a circumnavigation of the island since all of us were too delirious to bring up turning around until we were on the opposite side of the island. The only other boat in the anchorage was an Australian couple and they invited us all to have beers on their boat that evening. The next day we washed laundry in a bucket with the extra rainwater we had collected during an overnight squall. The squall had been quite uncomfortable and the wind direction had shifted 180 degrees wrapping our anchor chain around a coral head and putting our stern toward the beach. Even worse Lorien’s chain wrapped around their centerboard. We had all had enough of this particular anchorage, so with the laundry still drying in the breeze we hoisted anchor and put up the “green” spinnaker for a five-mile joy ride to the other side of the atoll. The destination was a coral reef that was shaped like a number 7 on the chart and we quickly started calling it the “7 is Heaven” anchorage. It was heavenly with great snorkeling on the 7 and a nice island nearby to explore. We dropped the anchor in 25 feet on a steep incline and the boat settled uphill in about 10 feet of crystal-clear water that was as calm as a swimming pool. When we jumped in to check the anchor (very well set in the sand), we could stand on the sand bottom and touch Atica’s keel! It was a unique anchoring set up to say the least. That evening we made a fire on the beach with Chris and Julie and tried out a new campfire treat, cinnamon snakes! We wrapped pizza dough around a stick and cooked it over the fire, then dipped it in butter and cinnamon sugar. The closest thing you can find to a Churro in the South Pacific, delicious!
With a little over a month remaining on our French Polynesian visas it was time to start looking at the weather forecasts for the next big jump. We needed a solid five days of good trade winds to get to the Marquesas Islands. Makemo is positioned well to be a jumping off point and was reported to have a good grocery store for provisioning. We left the “7 is Heaven” anchorage and planned to anchor near the pass (where we had the uncomfortable night at anchor) and leave for Makemo first thing the next morning. As we were just about to drop the anchor Chris radioed us and made the suggestion that maybe we should take advantage of the favorable breeze and make it an overnight passage instead. Without much hesitation we said “sounds like a plan” and headed out the pass after Lorien. The overnight sail was pretty uneventful, despite a few squalls and the wind dying in the wee hours of the morning. Makemo has two passes and we could easily reach the closer one in a day but then it would take another half a day to transit inside the atoll to the town so we decided to stay on the outside and go through the town pass. Before lunch we were anchored in front of Pouheva village, a full 36 hours ahead of ‘schedule’! Later we all laughed how even a year ago an overnight passage would need to be talked about, planned and anticipated, now it has become second nature and we can jump into our night routines at the drop of a hat.
We had low expectations for Makemo, just a basic provisioning stop, but turned out to be one of our favorite stops. The village had a cute authentic feel with colorful painted fences and tons of kids running around everywhere. There was a clear French influence with a large light house at the pass and very large Catholic Church. The off-kilter ratio of kids to adults made sense when we learned that Makemo is the location of a boarding school and university where families that live on the other remote Tuamotu islands send their kids for schooling. Friendly dogs roamed the streets and as we walked the roads we were constantly greeted with waves, smiles and “Ia Orana”, the local greeting. The grocery store was everything we had read and more! Luxury gas station mini mart store is probably the best description and we were thrilled! Unlike the other atolls we visited that get their supplies only from the cargo ships, the Makemo store gets fresh produce every Thursday by airplane. Our onion drought was finally over, they even had shallots! We loaded up on lettuce, tomatoes, avocados and fruit, what a treat! We had lunch one afternoon at a “Snack” (small restaurant) decorated with intricately woven palm fronds. The only thing on the menu was “steak frite” and the portions were huge, imagine a steak the size of a dinner plate atop an equally large pile of French fries. Nobody needed dinner after such a feast.
Over lunch Julie mentioned that the only thing we didn’t do in the Tuamotus was visit a pearl farm. As if by request the very next day two guys in a panga stopped by Atica and invited us to come to their pearl farm. The only directions they gave were that it was about a 20 min panga ride in this direction (pointing to the East). That afternoon we all loaded up in De Lorien and after about an hour we spotted the panga moored just off the beach and the buoys that marked the pearl farm. The owner, Tijan was a very industrious guy. His land was still at the early stages of development but his ambitions are to harvest much more than just pearls. He had several bee hives for honey and had been doing a ton of land clearing and was planting a tropical fruit orchard. On top of that he had just built a chicken coop to hold 200 chickens, who were coming by air plane from New Zealand in only a few days.
Most exciting was learning about the processes involved in culturing pearls. Tijan’s father was a pearl farmer so he learned the art and science of grafting at a young age. It starts with oysters that are 6 months to one year old depending on how big the shell is. The key is having the right size “pocket” of muscle to implant the nucleus for the pearl to be formed around. The tools are a mix of dentistry and torture implements. The nucleus is a polished sphere of oyster shell from Mississippi. When the oyster is big enough it is forced open just enough so the “grafter” can make a small incision into the “pocket” of the oyster. He places a nucleus and a small bit of mantel flesh from another oyster whose shell is particularly beautiful into the pocket. The mantel flesh determines the color of the pearl and the size of the nucleus coincides with the size of the cultured pearl. The nucleus come in multiple different sizes and if a nice pearl comes out then the next size up nucleus is inserted and the oyster is put back in the water to produce another pearl. If the pearl is not a good color, sheen or shape then it goes into the dinner pot. We even got to try a few of the raw reject oysters. Unlike the PNW oysters we are used too, on these oysters you just eat the muscle part that looks like a scallop. By the time the first pearl comes out the oyster is about 18 months old and it takes about one full year to reach the minimum of 2 millimeters of shell thickness around the nucleus to be certified in Tahiti and sold on the international market. Even with the ability to grow multiple pearls in the same oyster the average success rate for quality pearls is about 50%. This particular farm has a license to grow 40,000 oysters in two different spots, and has to rotate through them at roughly 3,300 a month. It is quite the process, and as Tijan told us its a labor of love. There is potential to make good money but it is a lot of work when you count up all the hours. We felt so lucky to get to learn about the production of one of the major exports of French Polynesia and see firsthand how a cultured pearl is made.
Swim with sharks … check, sail through an atoll… check, harvest coconuts on white sandy beaches… check, harvest pearls… check. With our Tuamotu bucket list complete it was time to head to the Marquesas Islands.