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life on the ocean

The South Seas Season

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Roosters in the mango tree.

17th November 2019

Another house, another tropical garden.

We have flown south from Hawaii to Tahiti, switched hemispheres, from Maui winter to Polynesian summer.

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Now we are back in Raiatea where Escapade has been well cared for at Chantier Naval Des Iles.

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While we prepare to re-launch, we are living in a local house for a few days. A traditional faré with a thatched roof and no walls.  A sleeping platform up in the roof feels like a tree house.  The garden is festooned with local goodness: coconuts, mangos, pomegranate, avocados, bananas, pamplemousse and papayas ripening all around us.  It’s a lovely retreat when our sweaty boatyard chores are over.  The only real problem is the deafening cock-a-doodle-do which starts at around 5am. Earplugs help but it sounds like the damn bird is right next to our pillows.  Our landlord Fabrice explained that the cockerels like to climb the mango tree behind the house.  Perfect.

Anyway it’s good to be up early before the boatyard gets too warm.

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I have written before about our life in tropical boatyards, never my favourite part of a sailing season but all part of the story.

Anyway it’s so much nicer to be putting it all together again at the start of the season than packing it all away.

When we lay her up, we strip the deck of all running rigging, halyards get pulled up into the mast, so everything’s protected from UV while we’re away.

Now it all comes back out and the boat starts to look shipshape again.

With every task we are working through the transition back to boat life, thinking about the season ahead and gradually shifting back into the mind-set of living afloat.

Away from distractions and towards practicalities, problem solving and the daily routine of sailing, provisioning and fishing. Self reliance, tuning back in to the elements, the ocean miles ahead of us, it’s a big mental shift from living ashore.

While climbing up and down that boatyard ladder I sometimes question the amount of hard, sweaty work the boat demands from us, but the question always finds the same answer.  It’s a small price to pay.  This boat is our ticket to another world.  There is no other way I know to live so freely for months at a time.

So for a few more days, it’s up and down that ladder.

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Afloat.

25th November 2019

We’ve launched!  Out into the lagoon at Miri-Miri, Escapade suspended from an anchor chain again.  Floating just above white sand, while I’m wind-foiling round the neighbourhood, dodging coral heads and coconuts floating by.

Everything has woken up fine after it’s hibernation.  Engines, batteries, instruments, inverter, watermaker, outboard, windlass, it’s all working!  Our little escape pod is ready again, let’s go.

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We decide to start with a lap of Raiatea, because apart from the boatyard we really haven’t seen much of this island yet.  First trip is a gentle motor down the coast (we haven’t even got the jib out of it’s locker yet).

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We tuck back inside the reef at Passe Toamaro and anchor on another shallow sandbank.  To our right is a large mountain, really a huge cliff face. (Mt Tefatua 1017m) To our left the Pacific is breaking on the barrier reef and up ahead is a charming little motu, which I have just read was once owned by Diana Ross. (The Motown Motu?) It sits just inside another pass, where long mellow left-hand waves peel down the reef, perhaps Diana is goofy-foot longboarder?

Talking of surf, well, we really shouldn’t.  The locals have strict rules here, no photos, no social media, no surf ’business’ or journalism.  They are trying to protect their dream, but it’s tough to keep a secret spot these days, Google Earth has a lot to answer for.  Anyway the waves can get as heavy as the locals.  Look at this one I snapped as we were leaving through a pass.  Can’t remember where..

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So here we sit, in a few feet of clear calm water. Flounders and puffer fish snuffling round the anchor chain to see what snacks are stirred up for them as it rakes over the white sand seabed.

Showers and rainbows sweep over the green mountain.

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As if all that were not enough, there is a little restaurant here with a dock to tie our dinghy to.

Might stay a day or two.

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We did.

Next stop Nao Nao, another shallow sandy anchorage under another spectacular mountain. Mt Puuhaahea. (Poo-ooh-ha-ah-hey-ah!)

We were greeted by a pod of spinner dolphin.

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These sandbanks are home to stingrays and spotted eagle rays.  Here’s one I spotted:

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Then another couple, possibly mating:

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Beautiful spots from above, but look at the markings on the underside of the wings, never seen that before:

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Foiled again

This sensation of windsurfing on a foil is still providing plenty of stimulation.

In light winds the trim is so subtle, responding to the aerofoil in my hands and the hydrofoil beneath my feet, the combined effect is still magic for me.

This unlikely flight.  Silent, efficient and so enjoyable.

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Today I was riding in very light wind, just enough to sustain flight on the foil but barely enough to get going again if I dropped back to the surface.

In this wind a conventional windsurfer would be hardly moving, certainly not planing.  It would be trapped by the forces of gravity, drag, the wetted-surface of the board and inadequate lift from the rig.  Yet I have transcended all those laws of physics and here I am flying along faster than the wind.

Like a seabird taking off, I have to flap my wings vigorously for a few seconds (full-cardio sail pumping!) and then I’m in to an effortless, low-level glide.  Enjoying the efficiency of the wings, feeling the flow over the foil surfaces.  That wetted surface is drying in the sun.

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I left the boat and foiled to windward, exploring new territory.  Out over the shallow lagoon, glaring aquamarine, slaloming between coral heads and surprising the stingrays on the sand below.  Out at the barrier reef I gybe on to the next beat, over the edge of the sandbank in to the deep channel, the water fades from turquoise to deep blue, more breeze out here, I lean in to the power and knife upwind.  On past a tree covered motu, dodging floating coconuts, I‘m a mile upwind of the boat now.  Here’s an oily-smooth patch of water, like glass, must be a current from the reef pass, it looks so strange to be sailing over a completely mirror-calm surface at this speed.  Then out through the pass, waves breaking on the shallow coral both sides, that fizzing ozoney scent in the air coming off the reef, and ahead the dark blue open ocean.

A smooth swell is swinging round the end of the reef and walling up across the pass.  I gybe on to it and let the sail go into neutral.  The foil feels the wave and I push down to keep it working as the swell sucks water up it’s face.  Trim.  I can see coral below, I’m actually not moving forward over that reef, the current is flowing out through the pass and up my wave as fast as I am trying to foil down it.  Suspended animation.  I hit the gas and glide down the wall to into deeper water as the wave wraps in to break on the reef flats.

Zoom out.  Mountains covered in jungle, ocean, reef, lagoon, Escapade anchored way downwind.  There’s nobody else here.

I am completely absorbed with the sea, the breeze and my carbon-fibre magic carpet.

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Taputapuatea

On the east coast of Raiatea is the most important site in Polynesian cultural history.

The Marae on this peninsula are believed to be the centre of the vast Polynesian migrations of the 10th century.

From here, navigators set sail in timber sailing catamarans and populated hundreds of islands across the Pacific: north to Hawaii, east to Rapa Nui and west to New Zealand.

The Hawaiian people, Maoris, Easter Islanders, plus the Tuamotuans, Marquesans, Cook Islanders, Line Islanders, can all trace their ancestry to this site. It was here that sacrifices were performed and permission was requested to sail out through the pass for each voyage.

The site is constructed of lava stones. Tall standing stones facing in from the ocean, then flat rectangular ‘paved’ areas which were the centre of ceremonies.

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Stones from here were carried on the sailing canoes to each new settlement.  Lava rocks from here have been found in all of those distant islands.

When Captain Cook was here the chiefs laid on a human sacrifice in his honour, on this very spot.  Apparently he was offered an eyeball which he duly swallowed. Nowadays you are more likely to offered a baguette from the food truck, but it is still a special and mysterious place.  Also now a UNESCO site.

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We quietly asked permission from the gods to leave through the pass for our next navigation.

Doesn’t sound too demanding, 25 miles downwind to Bora-Bora..

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Island Hopping

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8th October 2019
At this time of year, my favourite island is blessed with big ocean swells and non-stop windy days.
Yes, it was hard to leave Guernsey in October.
As summer turned to autumn we had enjoyed weeks of great conditions, the equinox, lots of energy in the air and in the water.  The tails of Atlantic hurricanes sending us wind and waves.  I was in the water every day, windsurfing, foiling, surfing, loving it.

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Photo: Pierre Bisson

But Dawn has commitments elsewhere, so with a heavy heart, I put my toys away and hung up my wetsuits.
(Won’t be needing them for a while).
The Guernsey weather forecast was still popping up on my screens as we boarded the plane, looks like another great week at home.
But after a blur of airports and timezones I looked out of the plane window at 10am today and saw the North Shore of Maui laid out below, Ho’okipa down to Kahului, the blue Pacific contrasting with triangles of white water, outer reefs breaking, that’s a good size swell even from up here.  Maybe I should have skipped the breakfast Mai-Tai.
We touch down, drive to Haiku to pick up my windsurf gear (thanks KP) and then straight to Ho’okipa.
From the plane to the waves in record time.
I’m missing another great week in Guernsey, but this will have to do..

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It was a wonderful summer in Guernsey.  The morning cycle to the beach to check conditions for the day, the changing hedgerows on my hill top running routes, spring wildflowers, summer honeysuckle, October blackberries.  I grabbed as much summertime as I could, foiling, windsurfing, racing longboards, and my new thing: open water swimming.

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Now I’m contemplating the Hawaiian seascape from my outdoor shower. I can see across the Kuau surf as far as Molokai.  Downwind paddlers and wing foilers passing by outside the reefs.  Turtles cruising the rocks.  The sea temperature is about perfect here now, no wetsuits required.

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We’re living right on the ocean, with an ever-changing view from the garden..

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Lots of water time here too, so many options!
We had every combination of wind and waves from head-high and glassy to flat and 30kts.
Most days start with a swim or surf before breakfast, then windsurfing or foiling as the wind comes up.  Ho’okipa wave-sailing sessions and maxed-out foiling coast runs down to Kanaha and back.  Every day I am thankful that my body still lets me do all this stuff.

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Photo: Casey Hauser16
Photo: Casey Hauser

Here’s those turtles hauled out at the bottom of the garden.  Easy to confuse them with the rocks..

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The Aloha Classic

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Dawn worked every day in the weeks leading up to the event.  The grand finale of the wave-sailing year, the world’s best windsurfers are all here.

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Photo: Si Crowther

This year’s a big one, a full PWA/IWT event with overall world titles to be decided, prize money, live-stream, headline sponsors Mercedes-Benz, the world is watching.

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Photo: Si Crowther

The Pacific Ocean once again played it’s part and delivered spectacular surf to Ho’okipa Beach Park.

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Photo: Si Crowther

It actually got so big I had to sneak off and go tow-surfing one day.  More about that later.
The windsurfing gladiators had to compete in huge swell and some tricky winds, sailing four-man heats to decide the best wave-riding skills and style.

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Photo: Si Crowther
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Photo: Si Crowther

The champions were crowned in the Pro Men, Women and Youth categories. (No Amateurs or Masters divisions for me this year.)

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The prize-giving ceremony featured an exhibition of vintage windsurf gear to celebrate the 50th year of the original Windsurfer board.
Early wave gear, plus some amazing custom speed boards from the 1980 Maalea speed trials.

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After the dinner, awards and speeches, the evening quickly turned in to a raging windsurf party with everyone from the teenage Japanese sailors, Maui locals, pro sailors from everywhere, PWA judges, organisers and everyone else letting their hair down to celebrate the end of another Aloha Classic and another year of wave competition.

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Big Swell
 
The swell forecasts are pretty accurate, ocean buoys sense the swell on it’s way.  It’s coming, nothing can stop it.  There is a real sense of anticipation on the North shore of Maui as the swell approaches.
This is the first winter swell of the season.  Surfers and windsurfers are focussed, discussing how big it will be, will Ho’okipa be rideable? Whether Pe’ahi (Jaws) will be breaking?  Preparing gear, refuelling skis.  At sunset there’s still no sign of the new swell, but I wake in the night to the roar of surf on the reef in front of the house.  At first light the whole seascape is unrecognisable, reefs and channels where I have been surfing and playing on foils, are now the impact zone for giant walls barrelling on to the reef.
The air is heavy with a thick mist, spray hanging above the white water.  Yesterday I paddled out there on my longboard!  Today no chance, surfers watch the ocean’s power from the beach, the huge waves rear up, you can imagine riding one, but how could you ever paddle out?  Today most surfers will only be mind-surfing those waves, it’s just too dangerous to be out there.
Unless you have a jet-ski.

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Or a friend with a ski!
In big waves a ski changes everything.
You can get out there, get waves and (most important!) get rescued from the impact zone.
The ski is the ticket to another realm of big waves that most people will just never ride.
The skills required to even paddle out from the beach, plus the danger of being caught in the wrong place by a big set, mean that most will not attempt it.
I would be terrified paddling around out there, not being able to move fast enough to get out of trouble, a sitting duck..

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But if you’re lucky enough to be on the ski, you can enjoy the incredible scenes as the sets roll in, perfect blue walls with glassy faces.
Pick the wave you want and get on to it early, using the speed of the ski to position yourself, drop the rope and ride.
It really is cheating.
Once again, I am so grateful to Scotty for pulling me into (and out of) some of the most intense rides of my life.
The next week there was another swell, bigger.  More nervous anticipation, another fitful night, waking to the thunder of the surf.  The house is shaking!
Back on the ski, Outer Sprecklesville, it’s bigger, and still building.  The sets are pulsing in, we are in a quick rotation, wave after wave, I am taking rights and riding big beautiful walls to the inside where the wave closes out and Scotty picks me up before we zoom straight out for the next one.
Then I make a mistake,  I’m too deep and can’t make the next section, in fact I can’t get past the main peak, It rears up all around me and I have nowhere to go.
The lip is crashing down from a long way up, this looks bad. I jump off the board and submit to the consequences of this game.  First I am thrown violently down, stay calm, I move into a foetal pose and cover my head with my hands, then I am thrown violently over again, then pushed down. It gets dark.  Then the water is white and still turbulent but my float vest brings me up.  I surface in a huge field of brilliant white, fizzing water, Scotty appears on the ski but he’s shaking his head, we don’t have time for the pick-up, the next wave is here.
This is worse.  I am right in front of the peak, bobbing around at the foot of a towering wave which is about to unload itself on top of me.  I wish I was somewhere else. Take a breath.
Boom!
So that happened, I was fine, in one way it was a confidence booster, that was surely the worst pounding that I could get?
It’s a mind game.
Yes I survived it, but yes, that wave could also have crushed me.
Next we try up the coast and get a few smaller waves at Kuau, right outside our house.

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Dawn was there taking these shots on our lawn.
I find that most tow sessions for me follow a pattern of mental states. I generally start with nervous anxiety, (How big is it? Can I handle it?) Then I get a few rides and start to relax and enjoy it.  Next I get spaced out on adrenaline and just want more and more waves.  Then at some point I have a moment of clarity, possibly I’m starting to get tired, or maybe when I realise the only other people out here are world-class watermen and professional athletes, all decades younger than me. (What the hell am I doing here?).  That moment came early today, the swell was much bigger this afternoon and still on the rise, I had that ‘pushing my luck’ sensation and called it a day.
Got away with it.
Again.

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Time to move on again, we pack up our Maui life and say farewell to all our friends there.
Thanks for everything we had an amazing time.
Dawn needs a holiday!

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It’s time to go back to Escapade.

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Thanks to the following photographers:
Pierre Bisson
Fishbowl Diaries
Jimmie Hepp
Casey Hauser
John Carter
Si Crowther
Dawn Pooley

The Blind Pass

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We sailed north from Fakarava to Toau again, but this time to the ‘Anse Amyot’ on the north side of the atoll.

It’s looks like a wide open pass into the lagoon, but there’s no way through the shallow reef across the inside, so it’s really just a dead end between two motus.

A ‘faux passe’, or as we would say in English, a cul de sac.

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It offers perfect shelter, a calm anchorage surrounded by 350º of coral.

And it’s another lovely coral garden, with good spearfishing along the reefs outside, which drop from a sunny 7m plateau, down a wall to the spooky dark blue depths of 200m or so.

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Ashore the motu is run by Gaston and Valentin (Laiza’s older sister).

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Here they are growing breadfruit, pamplemousse and some vegetables, planting coconut groves and running a little restaurant whenever there are a few cruising yachts to feed.

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We ate our first ‘varo’. A strange sort of lobster that lives in the sand and snares its prey with vicious, needle-like claws before dragging it down into the burrow to be devoured.

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Gaston is a master at hauling them out once they get their claws in to his fish bait.  He cooked one in butter for us, sweet and delicious.

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He also reaches into dark sandy tunnels deep in the jungle and pulls out ‘kaveo’, coconut crabs.

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Laiza is a devout Christian and Gaston built her a tiny chapel on the motu.  Every Sunday at 10.00 she conducts her own service, accompanying herself on the ukulele.

The motu also boasts a standard French payphone installed 2005.

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On a tour of their motu, Valentin pointed out the charred remains of a coconut palm struck by lightning.  A leafless black stump.  That night, Dawn and I both lay awake thinking of that tree as an electrical storm raged for hours.  Our carbon mast reaching into the stormy night above us…

The computers were safe in the oven and the water tanks were full by morning.

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Finally the weather cleared and it was time to sail away from the Tuamotus.  After four months of exploration we have visited eight atolls, there are about eighty more!  Fi took this photo from the plane window on the way in to Fakarava, somewhere over the atolls.

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That sandy plateau looks like a promising anchorage!  Wonder where it is, I’ll search on Google Earth.  The Tuamotus keep inspiring.

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I have owned three spearguns now, I bought the first one in Guernsey where I failed to shoot a bass.  It scored us a few meals in the Caribbean before I donated it to a Guna indian on a San Blas island.  His need was greater.

I bought the smaller one in Panama last year and it has worked very well.  It had two bands (one broke) and is a good, short-range ‘grouper gun’.

The gold one is my new upgrade, custom made for me by Marc Alexander in Fakarava and a pretty good hit-rate so far! I’m still keeping it simple, no reel of line to get tangled in, and my technique is improving, we have eaten a lot of speared fish this season.

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Return to The Society Islands

We covered the 230 miles to Tahiti in 24hrs. Sailing a fast broad reach under full main and gennaker all day, replaced that with the jib for the hours of darkness, and were double reefed by morning, trying to slow Escapade down so we could arrive in daylight.  I woke to see the green mountains of Tahiti again. Mountains! After so long in the two-dimensional atolls, where nothing is higher than a coconut palm.

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Then the towering spires of Moorea!

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Back to a favourite anchorage at Ha’apiti.

From here I can monitor the number of surfers at the pass, picking my moment to dinghy over and score a few waves when it’s not busy.

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An afternoon session with just one other surfer. A long-standing French resident who reckons he surfs Ha’apiti 300 days of each year. That’s pretty consistent for the local break! And he doesn’t own a wetsuit. The other 65 days he says there are ‘too many waves’. (It gets swell from several directions, sometimes all at once.) But if that happens, he has a few other spots nearby to choose from.

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So then one last night at sea, up to Huahine, across to Taha’a, and finally to our haul-out spot in Raiatea. Time to reflect at the end of another magic season.

We were in the Tuamotus from December to April.

It can be challenging, remote atolls, few supplies, no internet, but they are usually the most appealing! This year we were living further from civilization and closer to nature, for longer, than anywhere but mid ocean (which the Tuamotus are!)

Living with the reefs, the fish and those sharks, every day. “Full immersion” in the turquoise bubble.

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Fish out of water

Now Escapade is up in the yard and we have moved into a little house while we do the sweaty ‘yard work’. Preparing her for another hibernation while we have a Guernsey summer.

 An illustrious neighbour in the boatyard: Tamata, Bernard Moitessier’s last boat.

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From the house we can see yachts anchored in the lagoon.

It’s very hot ashore! There’s no breeze, and lots of mosquitos. I haven’t seen the sun set or the moon rise since we moved off the boat. I’m feeling disconnected from my element already.

It’s so much nicer to be out there looking in to the island, than being ashore looking out to sea.

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Crew Change

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22nd March 2019

A quick crew change.  Escapade has never had so many visitors! We waved farewell to Rob and Ailar and went back to the airport to meet our last guest of the season, Fiona arriving from Auckland for a week.

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A week’s not long in the Tuamotus, time flies down here. Just when I’m busy seizing the day, the sun goes down again.

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But it’s long enough for a last lap of the Fakarava atoll, a spin round some of our favourite anchorages, a blur of turquoise water and coconut palms for Fi.

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Fi had said that she would be “happy to do nothing” and just have a relaxing week, but of course that was never going to happen.

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We soon had her helming Escapade through the reefs, snorkelling amongst the sharks (it’s ok, Monty’s still on board), climbing coconut trees and riding the currents as we drift through the pass. Fi was a bit concerned about sharks, so for her first snorkelling trip we started in a shallow sandy spot where we had never seen any sharks. As Fi got in the water to take her first glimpse below the boat, a large black tip shark swam straight for us. Fi barely flinched. The shark swam by. Monty and I exchanged a glance and we all continued on our way. This will be fine.

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This was an amazing drift.  Monty, Fi and I holding the line, staying close to the dinghy in the fast flowing tide.

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It’s like a spacewalk, another planet rushing beneath us.

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As we come to a ridge entering the atoll, we see thousands of groupers below us, all aligned to the current, a mass gathering of identical fish spread over the sandy canyons. Feeding? Spawning?  I dive deep to see what’s going on. As I ascend, I see this grey shark speeding up towards the dinghy.

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When I get there the line is dangling unattended.

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Monty and Fi are back in the boat.  Several greys have started to circle.

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Are they closing in on me?

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We were a good crew.

Fi grew up with boats and sailing in New Zealand, so she’s happy to take the wheel or trim a sail.

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And Monty is up for anything, if you can get him motivated him to put that book down and get on with it.

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We sailed back to Laiza’s place.

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Lunch and a fiercely contested game of petanque, naturellement.

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But this time Laiza directed us to swim in her own little aquarium, a shallow lagoon behind her motu. It was one of the most magical underwater worlds we have ever seen. Live corals and clouds of fish in shallow, sunlit water.

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We found another spot by the North Pass, a reef wall dropping down to the sandy seabed far below, and alive with such a variety of corals, passing shoals of fish and all the busy residents of the reef, doing what they do.

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That week flew by and now we are all leaving.

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Fi to New Zealand, Monty back to France, Dawn and I are sailing north to the next atoll, crewless!  Takes a bit of getting used to.

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Five Go Fishing In Fakarava

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The Surprise

It’s been four years since our friend Monty last came sailing on Escapade, island hopping in the Caribbean.

Now he’s flying in from France to Fakarava to join us for a few weeks in the atolls.

The boat is moored in front of Matthieu and Agnès’s place, they give us a lift to the little airport to meet Monty’s morning flight from Tahiti.

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Later they are hosting sundowner drinks on the beach under a tree.

Monty is adjusting to his new environment and ready for a cold beer.

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What he doesn’t know is that his old friends Rob and Ailar have just arrived from London on this afternoon’s flight, slipped into disguise and are now pretending to be Matthieu’s staff.  Monty suspects nothing.

Monty was at school with Rob, but he doesn’t recognise his old classmate as Rob limps about sporting a beard and a big straw hat, raking up leaves and pushing a wheelbarrow around.

The beers are slammed down on the table by a stroppy blonde girl who storms off (Ailar in a wig).  Monty raises an eyebrow but I quickly distract him with talk of my new speargun.  He is starting to feel that something’s not right (we have pulled this trick on him before) but out here?  In the Tuomotus?  Surely nobody would go to such lengths to surprise him?  But he looks again at the lame gardener and the unbelievable truth slowly emerges, he’s been had again.

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Chez Laiza

So now we are 5!  That’s a full boat. We sail south inside the atoll while everyone settles in.

Old friends catching up and minds adjusting from long-haul speed to Escapade pace.

The trusty cedar lure produced this blue jack.

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First stop is Hirifa.  We watch the anchor dig into white sand and float in a turquoise pool 2m deep.

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We swim ashore to find Laiza’s restaurant.

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A beach hut surrounded by her cats, kittens, dogs, puppies, pigs and piglets.  Jemima would love this.

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Laiza was born and bred in Fakarava, living on a remote beach 30 miles (by boat) from the village.

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Our fish lunch is followed by an invitation to the petanque court.

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Laiza and family are experts in the accurate ballistic shots which scatter the opposition boules amongst the piglets.

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Health and Safety

Monty spent decades in the Alps working in ski patrol and mountain rescue.  All that experience means he is ever alert to a whiff of danger.  He likes to cast his eye over my hare-brained schemes and point out any risks or hazards I may have overlooked.  So I was very pleased to have him along on my fishing trips, in charge of shark safety.

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He was issued with Dawn’s pole-spear, we agree he will tow the dinghy close to me while I hunt, then he’ll stay in the water to fend off any inquisitive sharks until the bleeding fish and I are safely back in the dinghy.  Simple.

On our first outing, I slipped in to the water by the reef and noted a pair of grey sharks beneath the boat.  Good thing I brought Monty along.  He joins me in the water, but before I have had time to load my speargun, he has assessed the risk.  I look up see that he’s now monitoring the situation, in dripping mask and fins, whilst sitting back in the drifting dinghy.

But you get used to swimming with sharks.  Once Rob joined us, we soon worked out a slick 3 man procedure and brought plenty of fish back from our spearing expeditions.

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The sharks here must be used to spearfishing too, they are very quick to move in on a target.  Even if no sharks are in sight and the fish is cleanly shot, you have only a few seconds to get your catch into the boat before they arrive to take it from you.  We had a few fish devoured while ascending, arriving at the dinghy with nothing to show but teeth marks on the spear.  On one occasion I shot a good sized grouper, dinner for 5.  I raced to the surface and handed the line to Rob who hauled the fish and spear in towards the boat.  A grey shark broke the surface next to us and devoured most of the grouper, leaving only it’s severed head on the spear.  So no fish for us, but plenty of adrenaline all round.

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Fakarava tour

We snorkelled drifts through the famous South Pass and into the beautiful coral gardens.

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Stopped at Manihi’s lovely motu with its very welcome special feature: a wood fired pizza oven!

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Then sailed up to town for supplies and on to the North Pass for another spectacular drift.

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Quite sharky though…

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Makomako Motu

From there it was a 20 mile sail out through the North Pass to the next atoll, Toau.

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At the southern end of the uninhabited lagoon we found our next Shangri-La.

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Clear water, live coral, fish for dinner swimming under the boat, beautiful sandbanks, flocks of nesting noddies, and no boats or buildings in sight.

The toys came out of the locker.

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Dawn started training for the next Tow-in season on Maui.

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Rob and Ailar went to explore the tiny sand island nearby.

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Shady breeze under the coconut trees, we decided it was a perfect spot for lunch the next day.

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A fire was built from coconuts and driftwood and a grouper was roasted on the beach.

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The feast was served on paddleboard for a table.  Cold bottles of Hinano in the shade.

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But there was no wind at all that day, so it was just the five of us for lunch, but we were joined by a few thousand flies.

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We swam home.

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Beauty everywhere, skies, motus, underwater worlds, moonlit nights and good times.

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Somewhere in the Tuamotus

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Surfing

Adrien showed me the set-up.  I follow him out through the pass, swirling currents jostling the dinghies.  Then out of the tide and round the back of the reef, beyond the surf, we anchor the dinghies in 3m of clear still water.  I paddle nervously in towards the break and take it all in.  The tide is ripping out of the pass just over there, like a fast flowing river, but here there is no current.  I line myself up with our anchored boats out back, the motu in front.  Adrien paddles in to the first blue wall that comes peeling down towards us and disappears behind the wave, reappearing far away at the end of the reef.  He paddles in to the current which flushes him back out.  I’m still nervous, it looks so shallow in there, colourful live reef.  Adrien tells me it’s fine, plenty deep enough.  I wait until a wave comes for me, I’ll know when to go.  When it comes it is so perfect, so beautifully aimed at where I’m sitting, I can’t refuse.  I turn and paddle a couple of strokes until it takes me, lifts me up and launches me into a different place.  Colours, speed, gravity, fins biting, reef flashing under my board, a shining curve of water shows me the way but I’m not fast enough that time, not fast enough to stay ahead of the white foaming power which swats me from the board and envelops me.

The first of many waves.

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Later we are joined by Patrick, the local.  The only surfer living on the atoll!  He has developed a technique for crossing the pass from where he lives to the wave, walking upstream then paddling quickly across as the tide takes him out.  He is happy to have someone to share his playground with.  Shouting at us to go on the biggest waves, laughing at the wipe-outs.

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More fishing

This morning I was ascending quickly from about 10m depth with a nice ‘Celestial Grouper’ wriggling on the spear below me.  I came up for a breath and hauled on the line, grabbing the spear to hold the bleeding fish above the surface as I cover the short distance to the dinghy.  A big black tip reef shark is swimming up towards me from deep water, coming in fast between me and that dinghy.

I’m learning a bit about shark behaviour now, I’m swimming with black tips every day.  They’re usually quite timid and won’t come close to me.  I think he’s bluffing.  If he keeps coming, I’ll give him the fish, but I don’t expect him to confront me for it.  I swim straight at the shark waving the unloaded speargun (I’m bluffing too) he gets to within a shark-length of me and finally turns away.  Phew.  Fish, spear, gun and me, all up and over the side of that dinghy about 2 seconds later.  By the time I get back to the mother-ship my heart rate is returning to normal.

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Shelter from the storm

The forecast was not good, not only are we still not leaving for the Marquesas, it looks like we will be battening down the hatches for a few days of high winds and rain.  We are safe inside the atoll, but now we are hearing about sustained 30 knot winds with gusts in the 40s. That’s a lot of weather.

We study the charts of this atoll, the worst wind is expected from NW, perhaps we can get right up there in the NW corner behind a motu and get well anchored for a few days.

We pick a likely spot and set off across the uncharted lagoon, 10 miles up to the far side to scope for a possible haven.  Lots of coral heads about, but eventually we sink the anchor in the sandy bottom and pay out 75 metres of chain.  (Glad we extended that chain in Tahiti.) I dived the whole area, if that hook drags out it can’t go far.  We’re tucked in behind the high coconut trees, as much shelter as there can be here. Only about 100 metres of fetch, water should stay flat, we have plenty of fresh fish in the fridge, let it blow.

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Another boat appeared, a Canadian couple on trimaran ‘Nehenehe’, with the same storm strategy as us.

It took a while, the French Meteo reports kept telling us the storm was arriving, but the sky was blue and the breeze only about 20kts, I went windsurfing.

Finally the beast arrived above the frantic palm fronds one morning.  The boat shook and pulled hard on her bridle.  We connected up the hoses from the bimini to the fresh water tanks.  The sky became our watermaker.

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The wind sounded ferocious, howling through the rig.  We still have no wind sensor so I was guessing 40kts.  I called Nehenehe on VHF to check, their instruments said 45kts. That’s a full force 9 gale and as much wind as I ever want to experience at sea or at anchor.  It’s such a giant, elemental force, so much stronger than everything we have.  But a good anchor, good holding and a nice heavy catenary of chain are very reassuring and we didn’t budge.  For 5 days.

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Off line.

We are out of touch again.  More so this season than ever before.  Some of these Tuamotus are pretty remote.  We can usually get a phone signal close to a village, but out in the motus we are without internet for weeks at a time.  Weather forecasts on the satphone.

As Simon and Garfunkel said:  “I get all the news I need on the weather report”

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Pesca-coco-tarian

We are also further from supplies than ever before.  The supply ships call at the atolls maybe once a month, so the village store will be well stocked for a few days.  The fresh stuff quickly disappears, and nobody seems to grow much, or if they do it’s a small veggie patch for their own consumption.

We have always managed to keep a good supply of vegetables, but now it’s actually running out. Our usual fish and veggie diet is having to change.  I can easily shoot all the fish we need, and I’m opening a coconut every day.  The good ones contain about a litre of delicious hydration, and white meat for snacking on.

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I’m sure you could survive well on fish and coconuts, but we’re craving salad.  You can cut the heart out of a young coconut tree and make a delicious salad, but only if it’s your tree, we feel guilty enough scrumping a couple of wind-fallen coconuts which must belong to someone.

So no salad.  But Dawn is farming sprouted seeds in the galley, brewing kombucha and baking bread, plus we still have some French delicacies from Tahiti (canned Brussels sprouts!). We won’t starve.

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When the boat comes in

Just before we left, the long-awaited supply ship chugged over the horizon, having been a bit delayed by that bad weather.

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For the villagers this meant deliveries of everything they had ordered.  Groceries, supplies, fuel, a new sofa for someone.

We were able to buy a few supplies too, eggs, onions, carrots,  oranges, rare commodities out here!

It also meant that all the copra had to be ready and stacked on the wharf for collection.

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Copra is the cash crop of coconut meat.  Every nut has to husked, split, meat removed and dried in the sun.

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Then it is bagged into 25kg sacks and shipped to a processing plant in Tahiti where the oil is extracted for use in soap and skincare products, what’s left is good animal feed.

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Marquesas?

When our weather window to sail to the Marquesas finally arrived, we had a long chat about it, and decided not to go!  We had planned to just pass through the Tuamotus on the way up there, but it looks like we may be here for the whole season.  Our neighbours on ‘Nehenehe’ did sail up there and reported that there were too many cruising boats to fit in the anchorages.  Sounded very busy.  We’re happy to still be down here on our own.

Raroia

We decide to leave Amanu with a forecast for light SE wind.

So light and fitful that for a large part of the day we didn’t know which atoll to even aim for.

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As night fell the trades stabilised and we made good progress, unfurled the big gennaker in the morning and sailed up to Raroia.

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This atoll’s main claim to fame is that it got in the way of Thor Heyerdal’s Kon Tiki expedition. The raft broke up on the reefs of Raroia after a 4,000 mile voyage from Peru.

The locals saw unusual flotsam appearing and discovered Heyerdal and his merry men, shipwrecked on a windward motu.  A commemorative stone marks the spot today, a rare moment in the world news for the sleepy atoll of Raroia.

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Downtown

We went ashore at the village of Ngaromaoa.

I met three large women chatting under a palm thatched shade which I guessed to be the ‘centre de ville’.  I asked (in jest) for directions to the nearest bar? bistro? discoteque?

“Non non monsieur, may il y a une eglise” She put her hands together to mime praying, and directed me to the church, which was the main (in fact only) attraction for the visiting yachtsman.

But the village was beautiful in its simplicity, flowering trees and plants all around, friendly people on tricycles, and a well-kept, independent, one-ship-a-month sort of a feel about it.

Going sailing

Sometimes we have to go to windward, it can be bumpy and tedious, sometimes we have to deal with bad weather, reducing sail in squalls and re-hoisting in the lulls.

But today, sailing is just a breeze.  The wind is so light, less than 10 knots, the ocean is smooth with just a low easy swell.  Escapade has spread her wings with full main and the big red gennaker to capture every puff.  We are gliding quietly at close to windspeed under the warm sun.  A very broad reach, the mainsheet creaking, the gurgle of water along the hulls, and a soft whirring from the hydrogenerator, topping up the batteries so I can make a pot of coffee with the electric kettle.

Yachties tend to focus on a boat’s top speed, how fast will she go?  But a light boat has the ability to make these very comfortable passages across flat water in almost no wind and without starting a motor.  Not so exhilarating as the top-end, but very satisfying.

Our afternoon Scrabble game was interrupted by whales surfacing and blowing, a few deep breaths, then tails up and down they go.  How far down I wonder?  This patch of the Pacific is 4km deep.

The next interruption was a brown booby, repeatedly swooping low past the Scrabble game.  Huge wingspan and wingtips brushing the smooth surface as he turns.

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A streamlined head and body, like a Guernsey gannet, but bigger.

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He’s doing laps of Escapade, then we notice he seems to be trying to land, adjusting his airspeed to hover in at the masthead.  That’s how smooth our motion is today!

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The booby actually lands at about the third attempt and now he’s perched on the top batten looking down at us, very pleased with himself.

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Then he starts pecking at the telltales.  He’ll have to go.  We shout and clap but he’s unperturbed, well out of our reach and he knows it.

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He seems to be settling in, enjoying the free ride and the view.  He looks down at us on deck, trying to shoo him off, as if to say “well what are you going to do about it?”  Good question.

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He did finally soar away into the sunset, after trying to sit on the windex and buckling it.

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Night fell and the wind got even lighter, now we’re ghosting along under the southern stars.

A red moonrise at 0100, we cleared the northern tip of Makemo within earshot of the low surf.  Dawn came on watch and saw a bright red light which she identified as a navigation mark at the Makemo village.  As it got higher in the sky she realised it was further away than that and then correctly identified it as Saturn.

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Tahanea

By daybreak we are sailing too fast, 9kts straight towards the pass at Tahanea, but we don’t want to get there this early, we need to wait for the sun to be a bit higher so we can see all the reefs as we go in.  At least the sun will be behind us.  By the time we drop the main and motor in we can see the pass is calm and easy.  A 2kt current going our way. Once through we turn right and find a spot to drop the hook amongst the coral bommies.

Well this will do.

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Tahanea is an uninhabited atoll and a national park for the rare Tuamotu Sandpiper.

Phones say ‘No service’.

We explore the sandy bottom around the boat, studded with coral and teeming with life.

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A situation

Fishing at a nearby reef, can’t find the fish I want, we’re giving up, Dawn gets back in the dinghy.  I’m about to do the same when I see a perfect sized marble grouper swim out from under a ledge.  I dive, aim, shoot the fish through the head.  Dinner.

But while I’m ascending a big grey reef shark appears, coming in very fast, then another.  I drop everything and surface, a bit rattled.  The larger one is a big, burly grey, this is not a timid black-tip.  Looking down I can see the speared fish, line and speargun, spread out on the rocks about 8m below.  I can’t leave it there.  The sharks are excited, circling and nudging the fish, but not biting, the spear seems to be putting them off.  I call to Dawn in the dinghy to come back in with the pole-spear, but first she very wisely brings the dinghy right to me before getting back in the water.  I pick a moment when the sharks pass and dive to retrieve it all, hoping that Dawn brandishing a big pole-spear will keep them away.  Thankfully the dinghy was right above me, and we were both back in it very fast.

It was a magnificent fish and fed us for two nights.

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Paco

I said that Tahanea is uninhabited, but people do visit from nearby atolls to work the copra.  We see Paco in his hut ashore. He’s living here alone for a month and has processed a huge haul of copra.

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He has fresh water from a rainwater cistern, but no electricity.

Cooking is on a coconut-husk fire, and he has plenty of fish and lobster around his motu.  He showed us his galvanised rucksack for collecting lobster on the reef flats.

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He sleeps when it’s dark and wakes up when it’s light.

Solar lights

We’ve been using LUCI solar lanterns for a few years. They are great little inflatable lamps with solar panels and LEDs.

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We gave our first ones to villagers in Haiti who were living without electric lights at night.  Dawn approached the manufacturers suggesting we could donate a few more on our travels to remote spots off the grid.  LUCI agreed and Paco was very happy with his new lighting.  So happy that he went lobster hunting on the reef flats that night, and next morning presented us with a huge bucket of husked coconuts and live lobsters. It’s what he has.

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Drift dives

We’re all alone again here in Tahanea.  Anchored close to the reef passes and we like to snorkel through them on the incoming tide.

We can see the state of the tide by the texture on the water inside the pass, as the atoll endlessly inhales and exhales.

When it’s time we motor out to sea in the dinghy, jump in (holding on to a rope) and just lie there facing down, floating above it all. Moving effortlessly without a stroke. Like horizontal freefall.  Superman flight over the landscape speeding below.

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I feel we are really at home in this environment now, one of the special things about an extended trip like this, three months in the atolls.  Getting to know all the residents of the reefs, their behaviour, habitats.

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The stroppy trigger fish, chasing everyone away from his patch, my favourite groupers, gulping at me, sometimes I’m laughing into my snorkel. Passing jellyfish, turtles, the different kinds of sharks, how they respond to us.

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Free-diving every day, breath holds get longer, more relaxed, depths get easier, and more enjoyable, just feeling like a part of it all.

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Calm

No wind, no swell, perfectly smooth water inside the atoll.

I go on deck in the night.  Silence.  The boat sits on a perfect black mirror.  Stars and constellations reflected on the surface, we are floating in space.  I’ve never seen that before.

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Uto

The coconut palm is a special plant, it thrives on these sandy salty motus.  Huge green solar panels photosynthesising above. Trunks flexing to storm force winds if necessary.  The trees and fronds a source of fuel, animal feed, building materials valuable fibres.  Then there are the nuts.  They ripen in huge bunches below the leaves, swelling and sweetening until gravity causes them to plummet to earth, but each coconut is safe in it’s own crash helmet, the impact-proof husk.

At this point we might collect it, make a hole, drink the litre of water inside, then split the nut and eat the meat. If it’s a young this is a sweet and slimy gel. (in the Caribbean these are called ‘jellynuts’.) If it’s a bit more mature it will be hard white meat which can be dried for copra, or grated and squeezed to extract the delicious ‘lait de coco’ which is served with ‘poisson cru’ and everything else in a Polynesian meal.

If the nut remains on the beach, it will eventually germinate and start to produce a new palm. The husk now serves as a pre-packed compost in the sand. A green shoot emerges from the top and a tap root pokes downwards.

The water inside of the nut has undergone a metamorphosis and if you open it now you will have a different food, uto.

The uto is a spongy mass filling the cavity, the outer surface textured like a brain.

It doesn’t really taste of coconut, it is sweet and delicious, the closest thing to a sponge cake you’re ever going to trip over on a deserted motu.

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The octopus who was eaten twice.

I asked Dawn what she’d like for dinner as I set off on a spearfishing trip in the dinghy. “A grouper please. Or an octopus”.

I soon found a fat grouper lazily sitting outside his cave, easy target.  Back at the boat I showed the fish to Dawn and she said it was so fat she was concerned it was a pregnant female.

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Then we noticed a tentacle protruding from the powerful jaws, and I extracted a good sized octopus from the fish! He must have just been trying to swallow it when I swam past.  Imagine trying to swallow a live octopus!  No wonder he was distracted.  So tonight’s dinner will be octopus to start, followed by fillets of grouper.

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Fakarava

Time to sail on to the atoll of Fakarava to meet our next visitor.

Monty’s coming in from France next week, and we have a surprise for him…

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Cyril & Kirstin

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Cyril and Kirstin are suffering from that old problem, lack of boat.

Over the last few years they have been getting interested in sailing; flotilla holidays, charters, Day-Skipper courses, now they are in that happy phase of considering what sort of boat to buy, and where they might sail with her.  Reading about boats, going to boat shows, dreaming about sailing away, this phase often goes on for years, sometimes for ever.  During Cyril’s research he happened upon this blog and read a bit about life on Escapade.  He could relate to our experiences and felt that he almost knew us as he followed our journey.  Eventually he realised that he actually did know us.  We hadn’t seen each other for years when he left a funny comment on the blog and we arranged to meet up in London last year.  We invited them to join us on Escapade some time and this morning, they are arriving at the airstrip in Makemo, to sail with us for a couple of weeks.

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We had planned to meet in the Marquesas, but still have not had a weather window to make that trip.  Cyril and Kirstin are keen to sail some ocean miles, so perhaps we can sail up there while they are on board.  For now, we have the windiest and wettest weather since we arrived in the Tuamotus weeks ago. Menacing dark squall clouds appear over the coconut trees and the wind blows 30kts+ for a few minutes under each one.  We are secure in our flat-water anchorage in the lee of the motu. Over the next week we visit a few different spots, each more beautiful than the next.  And each with a different underwater scene.  We are in the water everyday, exploring the reefs and spearfishing for our supper.

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Kirstin is ‘Marine Girl’, a natural freediver, happy to disappear for hours with fins and snorkel, returning with wild pearl oysters, hoping for pearls but settling for a ceviche of raw oyster meat.

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Cyril is a photographer, as you can probably tell from the upgrade in image quality on some of this post. (There’s never any photos of the photographer are there? So this is Cyril’s self portrait.)

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We cross the atoll with all eyes looking out for the coral pinnacles which rise from the lagoon floor to the surface.

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We check the grib forecast every day for a chance to sail NW to Marquesas, but the trades would be right on the nose.  We could do it, but it would be longer and harder than it needs to be, so we’ll wait for a change in wind direction.

Eventually Dawn comes up with a plan to sail 200 miles east, to Hao, from where we would have a better angle to the Marquesas.  There’s an airstrip there, so we book flights for Cyril and Kirstin to fly out of Hao next week.  Then the wind goes east for a few days, so we can’t go there either!

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There’s still plenty to enjoy in Makemo, we visit the village for groceries, laundry and a night out in the only restaurant.

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As we load clean laundry into the tender, a family from the village are swimming in the clear water. The father is pleased to hear we are English, and tells us (in French) the latest England/Ireland rugby score. Then he says, in English,  “I hope you like Makemo, I hope you stay a long time.”

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The next day we sail across the lagoon to some charted sandy islands we have read about.  We arrive at the spot on the chart, but the sandy islands are no longer there, washed away!  We work Escapade north through the coral heads and arrive in a huge area of multi-coloured shallows, reefs and sandbars at the eastern tip of the atoll. Our kind of place.

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Anchor goes down with fenders suspending the chain over pinnacles of reef.  The foredeck crew are well drilled with the routine now.

Kirsten dives to check, I rig a foil, Cyril snorkels towards the beach.

Some time later he reappears, swimming back to the boat from the apparently deserted motu, having made friends with some copra farmers who were plying him with their home brew coconut hooch.

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We all went to explore the sandbanks uncovered by the tide. Dawn launched the drone.

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Cyril introduced us to his friends ashore.

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Plot a course for Hao

Finally the forecast seemed to be cooperating with our plan. A 15kt NE breeze should allow us to lay Hao without too rough a sea to slow us down.

We moved to the anchorage by the pass for our last night in Makemo, ready to set sail early tomorrow.

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First we take the opportunity to do a drift dive through the pass.  The tide is flooding in, we drive out against it in the dinghy, kill the motor, quickly don snorkels and fins then jump out of the boat, holding on to the painter.  It’s amazing.  We are flying over the reef at about 5 kts.  Clear ocean water streaming in as the atoll inhales fresh Pacific into the lagoon.

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We are being squirted through the pass, swimmers and boat, past coral, feeding fish and sharks. It’s all flashing by.  No swimming required.  We dive down and enjoy ‘Superman’ flight over the coral heads.

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The ride comes to an end in the choppy standing waves inside the pass.  Big grins back in the dinghy, let’s go back out and do it again!

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Plot a course for Amanu

A rare sight in the anchorage, another sailing boat!  Gaia is here, we said hello to the family on board when they arrived a few days ago.  That evening Didier came to see us, interested in Outremer.  We spoke about our plan to sail to Hao, meet C&K’s flight to Tahiti from there, and our planned departure from there to Marquesas. Yes perfect, but don’t go to Hao, says Didier.  Hao is a former French military base and is not the beautiful atoll we are looking for, but just 20 miles north is Amanu, which is only slightly inhabited, and very beautiful.  Gaia has just spent a few weeks there. The local fishermen will take our passengers across to Hao to catch their plane.

Ok change of plan, 30 minutes ago we had never heard of Amanu.  Now we will sail there at first light tomorrow. Thanks Didier!

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A night at sea

Cyril and Kirsten were loving life in the Makemo lagoon, but this was a chance for them to log some ocean miles, so we were all excited to be bouncing out through the pass and hoisting the mainsail next morning.  My temporary repair to the wind sensor mounting picked that moment to fail, so that was thrashing around the top of the mast briefly before disappearing for ever.  I instantly switched to my default mental wind sensor which was reading a steady 15kts NE.

We were just about laying a course for Amanu, but it was tight, so Cyril was at the helm optimising course to every windshift.  This was a big moment for C&K, their first time sailing out of sight of land!  It was also to be their first night at sea, and Cyril’s first solo night watch, which he loved, dodging uninhabited atolls under the stars while we all slept.

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By next morning it looked as though we were well on course and on schedule for our tidal window at the pass into the Amanu atoll.  After a day and night hard on the wind and swell we were able to bear off 10 degrees and enjoy a smooth 9kt ride in for the last few hours.

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Amanu man!

Another day, another atoll.  We had just finished congratulating ourselves on a well-sailed voyage and negotiating the narrow pass, then we tried to anchor.

Some days that’s a 5 minute job. This was not one of those days.  Finally we managed to drop it on a sandy patch and float our buoyed chain over the surrounding coral heads.  Everyone a bit tired and weathered after our night at sea. Time for lunch and a nap.

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We had a couple of days to get ashore, see the tiny village and arrange for a fast fishing boat to ferry C&K to the airstrip on Hao, 20 miles away.  We waved them off on a flat calm day, hoping the trip would not be too wet!

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Thanks for coming you two, we had such a good time, and glad to have the extra sleep on passage.

And all the great photos!

Enjoy the boat-shopping and I look forward to crewing for you one day soon.

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Makemo

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19th January

It was only 185 miles from Ahe to Makemo, but upwind for a day and night, dodging squalls and taking every lift we could find in the variable breeze.

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We were happy to reel in a fat yellowfin tuna, who supplied us with a few tasty meals.

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That night we saw ‘moonbows’ in the dark sky, full rainbows between the clouds, with distinct bands of colour in the moonlight.  Never seen that before.

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So we arrived in Makemo on 20th January and liked it immediately.

I have long dreamed of getting lost in the Tuamotus for a few weeks and this was really what I had in mind.

Another atoll, a huge lagoon enclosed by reef and islets (motus).

But this atoll is mainly deserted, all the residents live in the village, so the rest of the lagoon is pretty wild.

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Our Go-To Motu

We shot in through the NW pass and eyeballed our way 8 miles to Punaruku, a motu with a beautiful spit of sand and reef to protect us from the prevailing trades.

Our kind of neighbourhood.  A short dinghy ride to the nearest bommie, healthy coral, clear water and lots of big fish, great snorkelling, spearfishing, no ciguatera.

No phone signal, no internet.  We didn’t see another boat, or human being, for a week.  Just us and the four black-tip reef sharks constantly circling the boat, hoping I would have another fish to clean and throw them a few snacks.

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We can hear the Pacific waves thundering on to the reef on the ocean side of the motu.  On this side, the water is flat and breezy.

Another magic wind-foiling playground.  Every day I levitate on my addictive cushion of air.  Gliding, meditating, balancing the forces beneath my feet, hands and harness hook.  Watching the coral heads beneath as I fly over.  One morning I find myself staring at the deck of my board, it looks strange.  It’s bone dry. It’s been a while since I left the surface.

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After a few days we start to think about the rest of the world, we haven’t seen a soul, not even a plane across our patch of sky.

No contact, no news.  We wonder how that Brexit idea might be going, what Trump might be up to, that world seems far away.  There may have been a zombie apocalypse.

Things got weird one night when we watched a red moon rise over our motu.  No light pollution here.  The dark moon was rendered like a planet in a 3D sci-fi film.  A total lunar eclipse.

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The Curious Grouper

I am spending lots of time in the water, stalking, diving and shooting fish.  It’s still hit and miss, but I am tuning in to the different fish on these reefs, spotting the camouflaged targets sitting quietly under a coral ledge, recognising the way a grouper swims across the sandy seabed between coral heads.  Or the big bump-head parrotfish, so distracted by the bit of reef he is chewing that there’s a chance to approach from above without him noticing.

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There are several types of grouper here, my favourite is also called a ‘coral trout’ I think.  It seems to be able to change colour, at depth it appears to have a stripy camouflage,

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and at the surface is a beautiful red colour with blue spots.

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Then there is the Marbled Grouper, looking similar to the Nassau Grouper we were shooting with a pole spear in the Bahamas a few years ago.

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They share an unfortunate (for them) behaviour, which makes them the species most likely to be in my frying pan tonight.

When I first arrive at a new fishing spot, a likely looking patch of reef, I anchor the dinghy and snorkel round the area, checking for targets and sharkiness.

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Almost all of the Makemo atoll is uninhabited and we are living in some rarely-visited spots.  It seems these fish may not have seen a diver with a speargun before, and when I first spot one of my favourite groupers, he will often be watching me very intently.  Sometimes emerging from a coral cave to get a better look, or even pausing in open water to hang stationary and let his curiosity get the better of him.  I dive down to the seabed close to him, but never looking at him or swimming directly towards him.  Having reached the bottom I’ll hold on to a rock and slowly turn to where I think he was, and almost always, he still is!

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Fascinated by me and not afraid, or perhaps he is defending his territory.  He does not recognise the threat of a double band spear gun when he sees one.  Now we have full eye contact, he will continue to gulp and stare, inches from my spear tip, his pectoral fins working alternately as I disengage the safety catch with my thumb and plan tonight’s recipe.

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That exact scenario has played out many times and provided many delicious dinners.

The next stage is a rapid ascent, then a brisk swim to the dinghy with the speared fish held above the surface, sometimes pursued by a shark or two.

Compared with catching a fish by trolling a lure from the surface, this seems so much more intimate.

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It’s also more efficient.  I can select the species of fish I want to eat, and the portion size.

But I have to find him, get down (literally) to his level, out of my comfortable surface environment, picking the moment, waiting outside the grouper’s cave, predicting his behaviour and holding my breath.  It seems the grouper has pretty good odds, and he would have, but for that moment of curiosity.

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Anchoring in coral.

(Room to swing a cat?)

Dropping a hook in the Tuamotus can be a bit more complex than our usual technique.

Ideally we nose our way in to shallow water, lower the anchor 2 or 3 metres to the bottom and watch it disappear into white sand as I gently pull it back with both engines to bury it.  We attach our snubbing bridle, swing on a 15 or 20m scope and don’t give it another thought unless a real hoolie blows up.

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Not here. The water tends to be too deep or too shallow.  The lagoon bottom comes up steeply from 20 or 30 metres to a reef or beach, so we are looking for the occasional spot where a shelf of sand offers us a likely place to put the hook and enough room to swing a full circle.  Even the most reliable looking trade winds here can suddenly die or reverse, so that patch of shallow reef way upwind is suddenly just under our rudders.

It’s so hard to gauge those distances accurately from the deck.  So now I swim each time to check it, counting strokes from transoms to anchor, then swimming the same number of strokes from anchor towards any surrounding hazards, checking we have the radius we need.

Another of Moitessier’s old tips.  Simple and effective.

The next problem is the coral rocks, boulders and pinnacles.  Most of these sandy patches are dotted with old coral growth, of all shapes and sizes.  As a boat swings to her anchor the chain inevitably becomes wound around numerous rock structures, which can be tricky to untangle, sometimes involving one of us in the water directing the other at the helm as we drive the boat around, unhooking each loop of this cat’s cradle.  Not easy if it’s blowing.

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It’s also dangerous if the chain you think you are riding to is actually stuck on the rocks, leaving you with a much shorter scope than planned. Wind or swell can create shock-loads on that length of chain. (See Easter Island post for details).

So our new technique is to float the chain. We float two of our big fenders along the chain, clipped on to it with snap shackles on deck as the chain pays out.

The first at say 15m then another at 25m with a total scope of 40m, in 8m depth. It can work really well, with the chain suspended above all the potential snagging rocks.  It if blows hard the boat will pull back, straightening the chain and temporarily sinking the fenders.

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Another recent addition was a third fender attached to the crown of an anchor with a long (depth of water) line.

If (when) the tip of the hook lodges itself under a rock, we can pull it out from that end, whereas pulling on the chain would only dig it in harder.

I think our anchor is 25 kg. It’s hard to pick it up on deck, and almost impossible to move if I dive 10m down to it.  But swimming at the surface, I can use my buoyancy and the anchor’s reduced apparent weight in the water to great effect, pulling up on the line and moving it from a rocky patch to a nice bit of white sand.

It’s a good trick, but every time we put another line in the water, I worry about an unforeseen side effect. It’s another rope to tangle, or wrap around a prop.

This was a good one.  A black cloud approached and the wind died, the boat sat on top of her buoyed loops of chain and tangled them in the snubbing bridle. The bridle somehow rode over the fender buoying the anchor line.  Then the rainstorm started with wind from the opposite direction, the boat pulled back to the new breeze and the bridle pulled on the line attached to the crown of the anchor.  Pulled it out of the sand!  It seems so unlikely, but if it can happen it probably will, so we won’t be attaching that line again.

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Cyclone Season

We’re not even supposed to be here.  This archipelago is technically at risk of a cyclone, though they are rare this far east.

The plan was to be in the Marquesas by now, closer to the equator and a safer bet for this season, which lasts until April.

We are still trying to get there, but the wind’s blowing the wrong way.

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More guests!

We don’t generally have many visitors.  All those long seasons of lotus eating and navel gazing in the Caribbean, the guest cabin was hardly used.

This year we’re fully booked!

Our next rendezvous is in Marquesas with Cyril and Kirstin, friends from London who are coming to sail with us.  But we’re not there.

There’s an airstrip on Makemo, so we re-arrange to meet them here.  I think they’ll like it.

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Ahe

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Sorry this has taken so long.  We have been out in the atolls.  Fantastic nature around us, reefs, fish, birds, and a complete lack of internet.  Now we’re back online for the first time in weeks so here’s the first of the updates…

 

26th December 2018

Land ahoy!  We sight the tops of the coconut trees at lunchtime, only eight miles out.

I have known about Ahe for many years.

The sailing legend Bernard Moitessier came to live here with his young family in the 1970s.

After a life of amazing sailing feats, he loaded his steel ketch ‘Joshua’ with a ton of topsoil and sailed off to Ahe to plant a garden and live a simple life.

He wrote of his love for the atoll and inspired a generation of Frenchmen to sail away to the coconuts.

Now I am finally here to see it too.

 

Outside the pass we assess conditions, we have read that the tide flows in and out at up to 6kts, kicking up overfalls and making the pass dangerous to enter.

It doesn’t look bad from out here, we drop sails and start both engines.  These passes are spectacular. The clear ocean water flowing in over the reef, impressive surf peeling down both sides towards us, then the instant transition from open Pacific to enclosed lagoon.  We are in, with eye-searing turquoise shallows on all sides.

You can only really navigate in here by eye, with the sun well overhead to see reefs, but it will be 4pm by the time we get to the village, that’s a bit late.

We have read that it’s possible to moor at Kamoka, Patrick’s pearl farm, close to the pass.

We call Patrick who directs us and says he will come out to meet us in his boat.

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Kamoka

The pearl farm is a huge network of floating buoys holding up the system of ropes on which the pearl bearing oysters are grown. We find our way through that and Patrick leads us to a huge plastic hoop and ties us to it.  A redundant bit of pearling gear, which is securely moored to the reef.

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We survey the scene. Patrick’s motu has several shacks for farm workers, plus his lovely breezy headquarters built on stilts over a coral head.

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Patrick was here in the 1970s and sailed into Ahe with Moitessier on Joshua.  We hear stories of the old days, sailing cargoes of fish to Papeete and the pearl farm Patrick developed here.

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He has had plenty of adventures and been shipwrecked on the reefs.  He built an outrageous aluminium catamaran with an unstayed solid wing rig, which he sailed with his family and single-handed for thousands of miles across the Pacific. It now sits moored at Kamoka.

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I think it would be reasonable to call Patrick slightly eccentric.  He is great company.  We are joined by his friends Claude and Marie on their catamaran Vahine, and Patrick’s daughter and grand daughter.

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Patrick takes me spearfishing at the pass, my first time in these waters.  He tells me there is no ciguatera here “You can shoot everything”.  I shoot a few fish and swim quickly with them to the anchored boat, the sharks are getting interested.

We returned with grouper, parrot fish and soldier fish, which were cooked whole on Patrick’s smoker for supper.

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Before we left Ahe, Patrick had supplied us with homegrown pearls, homegrown aloe vera, pieces of local art, a hanging basket made from a fishing buoy, and plenty of good stories.

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Coco Perle

Next stop was the Coco Perle Lodge on the northern side of the atoll.

Here we meet up with our friends Edward, Annabelle and family on the catamaran Mirage.

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Coco Perle is a fishing lodge, a kind of bucket-list stop for keen anglers who travel from everywhere to fish here.

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Owner Franck invites us on a fishing trip with his guests.

5am start. Franck’s open aluminium fishing boat speeds back to the pass and we start to troll lures from rods and outriggers. We are soon joined by a couple of yellow-fin tuna.

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Then it’s time for a local style of deep water fishing I hadn’t seen before.  Bottom fishing with rod, line, weight and a baited hook, same as we do in Guernsey, drop the weight until you touch the bottom, wind up a few turns to clear the rocks and wait for a bite. But here the weight is 1kg and water is 250m deep!

Franck is hunting for certain species that only live at great depth, and are very good to eat.  He plays the braided line by hand and when a fish bites, he strikes to engage the hook, then pushes a button on the reel. The electric motor roars and the powered reel winds up the catch from 250m down, at two metres per second!

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Back at the lodge, his wife Janine cooks up a fishy feast every night and we ate so well.

 

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Escapade and Mirage sat off the Coco Perle Lodge for days.  The New Year came.  The murmur of ocean surf breaking just other side of the motu, but we’re in a lake.

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A soft breeze in the mornings for my foiling practice, slowly improving.  Levitating on the lightest zephyr, the foil so quiet I can hear the wind breathing over the sail.

 

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More fishing

Benoit arrived for a few days, an expert spear-fisherman and regular visitor.  He shoots fish all day, towing a small raft for the catch, and delivers the haul to Janine’s kitchen.  Edward and I joined him for a marathon spearfishing session lasting several hours.  We shot so many fish and the skin on my chest was raw from reloading the speargun.  Benoit knows all the species, their behaviour, which are best to eat and how best to catch them.  His free-diving is impressive, lying motionless at 15m waiting for his target to swim close enough for a shot.  He also explains the shark risks in Ahe, we see mainly black tip and white tip reef sharks, up to about 5 feet long.

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They can be inquisitive but are generally timid and will not approach a diver, but things can change quickly if you are dealing with a bleeding, struggling fish on your spear.  The sharks pick up the vibration and the scent of blood and arrive very quickly.  We aim to get a speared fish to the surface and into the raft as fast as possible.  We dive in rotation, one hunting, one towing the raft and the third on shark look-out, reloaded and ready to dive if necessary.  If there’s a problem retrieving the speared fish (spear tip stuck in rock), the sharks may get a snack.  They will sometimes chase the shot fish (and diver) to the surface, good to have someone watching.  Occasionally the bigger grey sharks appear.

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They are less timid, and also territorial, so if you shoot a fish on their patch they will try to take it from you. They may then come back to bite you, for trespassing.  The day before this trip Benoit had run into a big grey while diving alone.  The shark took not only his speared fish and the spear, but also the whole gun, and disappeared into the depths with it all.  So Benoit had to borrow a gun for today.

And he’s the expert.

 

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Visitors!

Our friends Jon and Charlotte are coming to visit us from Australia. We have arranged to meet in the Marquesas, but those islands are 500 miles NE of us and the wind is blowing solidly from that direction, so one day we gave up on waiting for a fair wind and diverted them to Ahe.  No big deal, (except that they were really looking forward to their holiday in the Marquesas) there are two flights a week from Papeete to the little airstrip on Ahe.

So one morning their plane lands and our old friends are here with us in the wilds for a week.  Along with a new supply of fresh fruit and veg flown in from Tahiti.

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We all had a ball, snorkelling in shark-infested waters, spear-fishing (I shot my first octopus, delicious.)

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And we made music. Jamming with Dawn on ukelele and Jon on Ed’s guitar.

Charlotte and I joined in with percussion, then there were our four part harmonies under the stars, can you imagine the late night sounds across the lagoon..

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We explored the motus, an ancient forest, collected tasty sea-snails from the reef flats, trekked across Ed’s motu wearing coconut helmets (designed to aid survival in case of a direct hit on head from a tall coconut palm).

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On a visit to Ahe’s village of Tenukupara, we were approached by a young lad on a bike who challenged the four of us to a game of beach football against his ‘équipe’.

After a quick limber-up, we trotted out onto the huge sandy football pitch in the village.  Our opponents arrived, some small enough to run through our legs, followed by every other child in the village to support them.

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They donated one player to us and a five-a-side contest was underway.  Our guest player had a great left foot and she became our main attacking strength, while we ran up and down the pitch in the soft sand and hot sun which proved a real test for our stamina.  I was eventually given a ‘carte rouge’ for picking up a particularly troublesome seven year old who was between me and the ball.  I think the final score was 5-4 to the Ahe kids, but team Escapade were badly in need of a cold drink and a lie down by then.

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So a week of music, seafood, snorkeling, sunsets, stargazing, SUP-yoga and lots and lots of laughs.

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All over too soon, we waved Jon and Charlotte off again on the little plane to Tahiti and home to Melbourne. A la prochaine!

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It was time for us to go too.  The wind direction looked good for an overnight sail to our next atoll, Makemo.

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Tahiti to Tikehau

 

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Tahiti

2nd December 2018

Back to the boat.  I always feel we have neglected the boat when we’re away, although she was well looked after, with Jemima boat-sitting part of the time we were gone.  This is the first time we have left Escapade afloat, on a mooring.  I nervously check all the systems, pumps, engines, watermaker, instruments, everything comes back to life.  Phew.  Last few items on the ‘to-do’ list then we can sail away to the islands.

Tahiti is hot now, high summer, it’s also wet season, so it’s pretty steamy.  We are keen to escape to a breezy anchorage.

But first, we are provisioning like never before, with the possibility of five months on board before we see anything like the Carrefour in Tahiti again.

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Our research tells us not to expect much in the way of groceries in the Marquesas and Tuamotus, so we are filling the boat with goodies this week.

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500 teabags

Multiple dinghy-fulls of French epicerie.  It goes on a bit, then there’s a Sunday 5am trip to the main produce market of the week in Pape’ete, fruit and veg stalls bursting out of the covered market into the surrounding streets.

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We load up with fresh stuff straight from the local farms, hard green tomatoes, avos and papayas that should last for weeks.  Finally we’re ready to leave, pay for the mooring, fill the fuel tanks and get away, can’t wait.

Then we realise the depth sounder has suddenly stopped working.  But it was fine two days ago!  Turn it off and turn it on again, even that doesn’t work.

We find a Furuno dealer in Tahiti and call him, he may have a spare transducer, have to check.  This could turn into a long delay, we can’t leave without a working sounder, he may have to ship the part in from Japan, get it through customs, Christmas is coming, we could be stuck for weeks!  Finally he calls back.  He has found one of our model in stock.  We go straight to his office in Pape’ete to grab the transducer and back to the boat to try it.  It works!  Great, that means we can leave at first light tomorrow.

13th December 2018

We drop the mooring lines and slip away.  Escapade has been in captivity here outside Marina Taina for 4 months.

Out through the pass at Pape’ete and away.

I just love this feeling at the beginning of a new season. Self sufficiency, the boat stuffed with everything we need and 5 months ahead of us to play with, whole new archipelagos to explore. I am dancing round the boat.

 

I had suggested to Dawn that we first visit Tetiaroa, only 30 miles away.

It was the location for the 1960 film ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, starring Marlon Brando who fell in love with the South Seas dream whilst filming there.

Brando came back and bought the island in 1966 and now there is a 5* resort ‘The Brando’, where movie stars still fly in for lavish birthday parties.

Apparently Barack Obama checked in for a month to write his memoirs and do a bit of kiteboarding in the lagoon.

Anyway I kind of hinted that we might stop there for dinner as a birthday treat for Dawn, but I hadn’t done the research very well.

It’s an atoll without a pass, so you can’t sail in.

We couldn’t find anywhere to anchor and the two ‘Brando’ moorings were being pounded by a big swell.

We had to sail on by. (Tetiaroa, no fun atoll!)

So that birthday treat was cancelled, and replaced by two days and nights at sea. Sailing to windward!

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But it’s great to be out here! Testing ourselves again.

The uncaring eternal ocean.

The outrageous southern night sky at sea.

Andromeda rising, a multi-colour flashing disco light. Galaxies and planets, a meteor shower, all new to me again after a few months with no night watches.

I think it’s healthy to have some extended starlight exposure and a long solo watch allows plenty of time for reflection.  Restores perspective.

We’re sailing for the Tuamotus. An archipelago 1000 miles long, hundreds of low lying atolls with coconut palms as their highest point. Before GPS it was known as The Dangerous Archipelago, as so many vessels were lost on reefs spotted too late.

The old Polynesians navigated these waters without instruments, reading their distance from an atoll in the interference patterns in the waves which had refracted round it, the flight patterns of the white fairy terns, who don’t stray further than 15 miles from land, and spotting the green sky, reflecting the colour of the lagoon up onto the base of white clouds above.

15th December 2018

Our first green cloud and fairy tern were above Tikehau. (Pronounced T.K.O, and it is a total-knock-out of an atoll).

We came here by accident really, we were getting a bit bored with the long beat up to Rangiroa, and there was Tikehau, the pass just a few miles to leeward, a tempting detour.  We ran off downwind, shot through the technicolour pass and into the calm lagoon.

Time to rest up after two nights at sea and prepare to celebrate Dawn’s birthday!

 

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19th December 2018

Here we are in the Tikehau atoll. Our first Tuamotu. If you could see us on Google Earth and zoom out, we’re in a blue lagoon about 12 miles across, studded with a few tiny islets and coral heads. The lagoon is surrounded by reef, along which are set a string of tiny islands, ‘Motus’, forming a complete circle except for one pass, deep enough to sail through. Inside the atoll the water is about 15m deep, beyond the reef is the vast Pacific, deep blue, and 3000m deep. We are in a calm lake in the middle of the ocean, anchored off a perfect coconut fringed motu. Black-tip reef sharks cruise by the boat.

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It’s a pretty remote spot, but we are living well. We only left Tahiti a week ago, so the boat is still groaning with fine French foods. Today’s cheeseboard features a ripe Tomme de Savoie and a slightly sweaty Comte (Thinking of you Monty).  And of course the cellar is well stocked.  But the bad news is that we have just eaten the last of the lettuce.

The chartplotter shows a marked channel from the pass to the village of Tuherahera.  Beyond that the interior of the atoll is a blank screen. No depths, no rocks, nothing. About 100 square miles of uncharted lagoon.  But really, you navigate here by eye anyway, as long as the sun is high so you can see the rocks and coral heads just below the surface, chart or no chart.  So off we went to explore, dodging the reefs to our first stop at ‘L’Ile D’Eden’.  A motu that has been run by a Christian sect since the 90s, following the teachings of their Taiwanese prophet, returning to a simple life and growing their own food in a little island paradise.

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We dropped the hook and went to visit.

Three families live on the island, including seven lucky children running wild. We were shown around by Paul from Malaysia and Sheila from Tahiti, the local Tom and Barbara Good, who tend the organic farm.

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We picked acerola cherries and mulberries from the orchards, cut lettuce and chinese leaves in the garden, they are growing bananas, papayas, dragon fruit, lemons, every kind of salad leaf, spinach, bok-choy, radishes, herbs, vegetables, ginseng, vanilla, pigs, chickens and bees.

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The animals eat coconuts and produce meat, eggs and fertiliser.  The growing areas are spaced between plantings of casuarina and moringa bushes whose roots replenish nitrates in the soil.

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There is also a hothouse for drying out delicious sea salt.  A remarkable project, given that so little is grown anywhere else in the Tuamotus, except coconuts. Mainly because there is no soil, unless you create your own, as they have done here.

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The motu is a dot of sand surrounded by salt water.  They collect rainwater and have recently installed a few solar panels.

Paul explained that the coconut trees are still at the heart of it all. The only way they can grow bananas for example, is to dig a huge pit in the sand and fill it with coconut husks and compost before planting.  Coconut husks are the fuel for all cooking. They can feed the livestock on shredded coconut leaves and meat from the nuts. The also drink the water from the nuts, squeeze the ‘lait de coco’ from the meat then produce coconut oil by cold fermentation.

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Paul told me he does most of the work himself, tending the farm which would easily produce enough food for 50 or more people.  They take their boat to the nearest village each week to sell surplus produce. He also has time for a bit of fishing and spear-fishing. I think they have a healthy diet!

We left in our dinghy, gratefully loaded with fresh cut greens, berries, radishes, eggs, dark honey from the coconut flowers, bunches of moringa leaves and basil.

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Out into the deserted lagoon again.

Three miles away lies the Motu Puarua (Poo Ah Roo Ah) a nesting spot for Brown Boobies, Black Noddies and Fairy Terns.

It sits surrounded by its own reef, with a plateau of shallow water and white sand to dig your anchor in to.

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Just us, the birds and the fish, in a shimmering turquoise halo around the motu. Bath-warm water.

We anchored thinking it could be a good spot for lunch. Still here five days later.

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21st December 2018

A huge full moon and the longest day, the Austral summer solstice, a good time to be on passage, short moon-lit nights, but we’re not ready to leave.

The magic is strong here and we feel like leaving the anchor buried for a few more days.

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So that solstice gives us daylight from 0500 to 1900.  The trades seem to bless this part of the lagoon with a constant breeze, 10-15kts. All day, every day.

Not enough for regular windsurfing, but on a hydrofoil…

 

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Yes new toys on the boat, I brought a foiling board with me from Maui, and the toy locker is now enhanced with a big bag of Slingshot foils. (Thanks Casey)

So I am zooming around the motu, faster than windspeed, surprising all the birds.

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Probably the first circumnavigation of Puarua by windfoil.  Birds flying along side, sharks darting beneath, slaloming between coral heads and turtles, another foiling heaven.

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We take a paddle board in to explore the island and scrump some coconuts. Across the reef flats, where a coral is growing in large circular formations, but bright purple.

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Or through polarised lenses, shocking pink.

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Reef sharks patrol the shallows.

Ashore there are roaming crabs, nesting pairs of white fairy terns, but the place belongs to the Black Noddies.

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There are thousands of them!

Every tree is decorated with a dozen nests, a Noddy sitting on an egg in each one.  All squawking their heads off.

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Then the occasional ball of white feathers sitting in its nest. A red-footed booby chick, like a big white fluffy muppet, about a foot tall!

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So our quick detour to Tikehau distracted us for 10 days, time to move on again.

 

On Christmas morning we sailed back out through the pass and the palms of Tikehau slipped back in to the sea astern.

Back on the deep blue for the two day trip to the next atoll…

Ahe.

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