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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Copra is the cash crop of coconut meat. Every nut has to husked, split, meat removed and dried in the sun.
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.
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.
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.
As night fell the trades stabilised and we made good progress, unfurled the big gennaker in the morning and sailed up to Raroia.
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.
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.
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.
A streamlined head and body, like a Guernsey gannet, but bigger.
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!
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.
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.
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.
He did finally soar away into the sunset, after trying to sit on the windex and buckling it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He sleeps when it’s dark and wakes up when it’s light.
We’ve been using LUCI solar lanterns for a few years. They are great little inflatable lamps with solar panels and LEDs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Free-diving every day, breath holds get longer, more relaxed, depths get easier, and more enjoyable, just feeling like a part of it all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…