After a leisurely lap of the Tikehau lagoon, Dawn is leaving me for a few weeks. We’ve been away from home since October and Dawn needs to be in Guernsey and England to see family and friends.
The problem is that it’s cyclone season here, so if a storm threatened while Dawn was away, Escapade would need to move north, and I would need a crew.
We have some volunteers! Bryan and Auriane, friends from Maui. They have come to help me sail the boat and are hoping to score some surfing and diving along the way.
After a few days at anchor, Escapade slips into holiday mode. She is no longer an ocean-going vessel, more of a floating beach house. All the toys are out of the lockers. Decks strewn with windsurf gear, foils, spear-guns, paddleboard, sunshades rigged.
Then we see a forecast with a good wind direction to make some easting for the next atoll. It looks very light, but should be do-able with big sails. We plan our departure and arrival times, hoping to arrive with good light for coral pilotage, and allowing for tidal flows in and out of the passes.
Then the boat transforms back to a passage-making craft, ready for sea. Toys stowed, hydro-generator back on the transom, Code Zero hoisted and furled, anchor up, and off to the pass at the appointed hour.
As we approached the pass we could see white spray flying over blue walls as they wrapped in to the reef. It was still 2 miles away. Bryan started to twitch a bit.
As we got closer, the size and quality of the wave became clear.
There was quite an intense conference in the cockpit. What to do? Cancel sailing trip? Surf today and try to leave tomorrow? But our window in the forecast is tight. If we don’t go today we may have easterlies for another week or more. Close to the pass now, the next set rolls in. Bryan is starting to freak out, we are motoring straight past a dream wave and out to sea?
I agree to a one hour delay to the passage plan. Bryan shoves fins in his surfboard and jumps off the boat. Paddling in to his first barrel as we slowly take Escapade back in through the pass.
That delay was the start of a frustrating trip, plagued by squalls and calms and a forecast NE wind that never materialised. We finally sailed in to Fa’aite after two nights at sea. We eyeballed our way north through uncharted coral heads and found a turquoise spot to drop our hook off a deserted motu. Time to rest up for a few days.
Bryan sharpened the tip of his spear and started shooting fish around the local coral bommies.
Auriane was armed with a pole spear and they quickly adjusted to the life on the reef and the general sharkiness. Sharks are a factor in most fishing trips in these atolls.
Bryan’s arrival on Escapade has ramped up the foiling level quite a bit.
He was a pro freestyle windsurfer and is now throwing moves on his foil board that I can’t even name.
Looks like I need to up my game!
I decide I will learn to do the downwind 360. A smooth turn carved in a full circle that takes you the wrong side of the sail and back again, but doesn’t look too dangerous.
The punishment begins.
Try, crash, waterstart, try again.
Repeat until exhausted.
The whole process of teaching this old dog a new trick moves painfully slowly. By the end of the first day I felt like I’d been beaten up.
The resident pro offers valuable nuggets of advice. After a few sessions still no 360, but some progress, maybe couple of 340s!
Trying to score waves on a sailing boat can be a frustrating business. The demands of the yacht and the surfboard are not usually aligned. We have had a few magic moments along the way but usually more by luck than any real planning.
Bryan’s first, brief encounter with a Polynesian reef pass has lit the fire. He’s hungry for waves.
Whenever we get a whiff of internet he is scanning swell forecasts, and if we’re offline, Dawn is calling through Surfline data to the satellite phone from Guernsey.
A big storm off New Zealand is sending a long period swell our way. Can we intercept it somewhere? We scan the charts, studying the angles and orientation of the passes. So many options, but we have no idea which will produce rideable waves from this swell. And where will we anchor Escapade? A sheltered spot within dinghy range of the waves? We patch a plan together with best guesses and a few scraps of local knowledge gleaned from our chats with the few Tuamotans we meet.
At one point we were living by a promising forecast for Teahupoo (250 miles SW of us) and planning our movements accordingly.
Even when the swell arrives there’s still the local weather to contend with. That has been much more of a challenge this season, the trade wind flow is ‘perturbé’ as they keep saying on the French Meteo messages.
We endured unfavourable sailing and some uncomfortable nights at anchor, but we did find some beautiful waves.
Ok, swell forecast came true, we’re here, waves look good, boards are waxed. How do we even get out there? Strong currents through the passes, sharp coral on the reef flats.
And once you make it out to where you think could be the right spot, you realise that the waves are sucking up that shallow water off the reef below you. Only the biggest set waves will break far enough out. Commitment required.
So none of it was easy. The planning, anchoring, access, take-offs, all pretty tricky.
But we did score a few rides we won’t forget.
The spearfishing has been good. We’re back on the Tuamotus diet, rich in fish and coconuts.
Bryan shot a big parrotfish right under the boat. I went down with a camera to see what was going on and took this shot as he was ascending with his fish.
All of which attracted a few blacktip reef sharks.
Fillets grilled over coconut husks for lunch.
Next day I saw another one under the boat.
One dive, one shot, back on the boat with the day’s catch in 5 minutes.
Which leaves plenty of time free for foiling…
Drift diving in the pass…
Another shark story?
So we’re snorkelling round a nice big coral bommie, so far we have shot one parrotfish and got him safely back to the dinghy, de-speared and in the fish box. Not quite big enough for dinner.
We get back in the water to try again. It has got much more sharky, blacktips, whitetips and a big grey are excited by the kill, now all circling the scene of the crime.
There are still some good size parrotfish down there, but in deeper water now. I dive deep and hold on to a piece of coral with my gloved left hand, right hand aiming the speargun at the group of parrots, all just within range but not offering a good side-on target. I’m trying to stay motionless, but I’m running out of bottom time, need to breath. Then a massive bumphead parrotfish appears next to me and swims slowly in front of my spear. I shoot him through the
back of the head, not a kill. Spear goes straight through the fish which starts thrashing about. It’s now threaded on the dyneema line between spear and gun. I start pulling on the line to retrieve the fish but the big grey shark comes in very fast. He turns away from my fish at the last moment, but by that time I have panicked and dropped everything. Bryan was just coming down to act as shark deterrent when he sees me ascending, so he turns round and we both surface. Breathe.
Meanwhile, it’s mayhem down there. Big cloud of blood and fish scales. Lots of sharks confused by the gun and spear. The grey finally muscles in and swallows the parrotfish whole, still on the line. Now he sets off, with the spear dangling from one side of his mouth and the gun on the other, pursued by a bunch of blacktips, and me!
My spear gun is disappearing in to the big blue! I give chase at full front crawl pace on the surface as they all disappear in to deep water. Lost my gun!
Wait, a flash of yellow, the foam filled aluminium tube is slowly surfacing, line bitten through. I swim to retrieve it and there, far below is the spear, lying on a sandy bottom with the rest of the severed line. Beyond my comfortable depth but I don’t have a spare. I finally reach it, and it’s now re-threaded with a new line and working fine!
Bryan made fish tacos..
Dawn is back on board, Bryan and Auriane are leaving us after weeks of adventures in the Tuamotus.
It’s been great to sail with them.
We covered hundreds of miles, a few dark nights at sea, and a nice constellation of different atolls.
My French seems to be improving with daily use, but it has been very useful to have Auriane (who is French) to help with translation. She’s also a yogi, a PADI dive instructor, comfortable at depth and happy to be on shark watch while the spears are flying.
Bryan is useful to have around too. Apart from the windsurf coaching, he’s a cameraman, drone pilot and good at fixing things. (windsurf boom, speargun, satellite phone!) He loves to fish and spearfish and surf, so he fits in pretty well.
He also has special skills in Mexican cuisine so the galley has been producing delicious tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, micheladas, margaritas and the occasional Baja Fog.
So many good times, thanks for coming to help out!
Bloody awesome! You and those damn sharks – WTF!!!!
Another great post and the photos were stunning too. Been meaning to ask you about anchoring and surfing as it is my end goal, but they don’t seem to go well together.
Thanks for the inspiration, just making it out of winter and trying to catch up on boat projects now, argh.
Have a look at an Australian invention called a SCORKL. You can breath underwater for about 10 minutes, and it recharges with a hand pump. You just hold it in your mouth, so both hands free for fighting off sharks. Available to buy from their kickstarter page online.