Leaving Nuku Hiva with a brisk 20 knot south easterly we decided to have one last night in the Marquesas at Ua Pou on the west coast before heading for the atoll of Kauehi. With an impressive swell beam on, the passage was a wet and salty one, especially when one wave broke on the side of Joy and managed to force a gallon of two of salty brine in to the cockpit. After a quiet night anchored on the west coast, we set off the following morning for Kauehi.
We had a great sail, with 20-30 knots of wind we covered the 496 miles in less than 70 hours, an average speed of just over 7 knots. As the eastern side of the low-lying coral atoll came into view in the early morning light we kept up our speed hoping to make the narrow pass through the coral into the lagoon on the south west ‘coast’ not too long after slack water. Arriving at the pass, the incoming tide had started to run at a couple of knots with a few standing waves on the inside of the pass caused by wind against tide, but we sailed through the pass with the motor running just in case without any problems. The wind was still blowing strongly from the south east so we made our way across the lagoon to the southern side, there was one other boat anchored there and they looked to be pretty comfortable. As we got into the lee of the southern fringe of coral the wind chop subsided and with the sun now shining the turquoise water revealed a nice sandy patch with only a few low lying coral heads scattered about for us to anchor in.
Is was nice to get to know the other boat anchored here too, another British ketch-rigged boat, and we spent a couple of fun evenings with them and went for a snorkel. The few corals along the shoreline were covered with beautiful clams with vibrant purple, blue and green colours. A black-tipped shark came to check us out a few times before disappearing uninterested. I was surprised at how calm I was watching him, watching me. He didn’t display any kind of threatening behaviour and it was obvious he was just being inquisitive (and he was only a small one!).
With the wind getting stronger and a stormy forecast, we decided to move to more protection on the south east coast as some considerable wind chop had developed in this exposed southern anchorage, so we waited for the sun to show itself in between showers and then made our way carefully across a non-charted area of the lagoon. I kept watch on the bow looking for reef and bombies and Jez watched the forward looking echo sounder, what a great piece of kit this is proving to be. The eastern side of the atoll has more of a wider motu, an island of reef with vegetation, and the coconut trees and vegetation give excellent protection from the wind. We found a nice sandy patch with hardly a ripple on the water and after a quick survey of the area to check out the bombies we dropped anchor just as the sky darkened and the rain started again.
We spent a few days here, walking the motu and exploring the ruins in the undergrowth and snorkeling when the sun occasionally revealed itself.
It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the tranquility and seclusion of Kauehi, but with a brief break in the weather as the wind turned to the north east we took the opportunity to get out of the lagoon and sail to the atoll of Fakarava just over 30 miles away. With slack water occurring at 6am we had an early start and this time used just the forward looking echo sounder to check our course across the lagoon in the dark. Perfectly timed and with barely a ripple on the water we slipped through the calm pass shortly after another boat had entered. We noticed the newcomer heading off under sail across an uncharted area of the lagoon in the early morning light and weren’t entirely surprised when we overheard his VHF call later to another yacht telling him he had just narrowly missed hitting an uncharted reef! If you don’t have a forward looking sonar in these parts you definitely need eyeballs and sun overhead to navigate safely.
Our sail to Fakarava was enjoyable and fast, we continually reefed to slow Joy down as we wanted to arrive at the Garuae pass on the north side at midday slack water. Another pass perfectly timed, entering the lagoon under sail in flat calm water avoiding the dive boats bobbing in the main channel. Fakarava has the second largest lagoon in the Tuamotu group, being 30 miles wide and 10 miles long. It has around 800 inhabitants mostly employed in the pearl, tourist and copra industries. The main village of Rotoava is situated on the northern part of the longest continuous motu in French Polynesia which lies along the eastern side of the lagoon. It is a very popular stop over for cruising boats due to the provisions available in the village, a few small restaurant/snack bars, good snorkeling and great protection from wind with an easterly component. We counted over 30 boats anchored off the village, positively crowded in comparison to Kauehi.
Our salad search proved fruitless in the three supermarkets in the village, despite only being the day after the supply ship had visited most of the fresh produce had already been snapped up. The wind was now light from the north and the forecast rain had set in, this was the lull before the next blow from the south east, so we raised the anchor saladless and sailed very slowly south along the inner east coast of the motu. After a comfortable overnight stop half way down tucked up behind a protruding reef, the skies had cleared and we continued sailing to the anchorage in the south east corner of the lagoon but this time in sunshine rather than showers. There was quite a crowd of boats already gathering in the anchorage and many more followed later in the day seeking protection.
As the wind turned around overnight to the south east the fun began. Many boats woke to find their anchor chains wrapped around coral heads, we watched as our neighbours dived on their anchors and chains and drove their boats forward trying to free themselves as the wind increased. Entertainment over, we thought we ought to do the same and Jez jumped in with his snorkel gear to check. Sure enough we were caught up too, but managed to easily untangle things by retrieving some chain and waiting for the boat to swing free then paying it back out. It was good timing, as the strong south easterly set in soon after.
Having been in the protection of the south east corner for a couple of days the wind once again dropped and turned more easterly releasing us from our paradise prison. We sailed along the south coast to the south west pass, a much narrower pass than the northern one and trickier to negotiate with strong currents and opposing seas. As one boat just a few days earlier had sadly discovered. We hadn’t come here to transit the pass, but to snorkel it.
Word on the street is that the boat tried to exit the pass at 5 am a few days ago with full sail up but ran into difficulty when a rope caught in their propeller and they ended up on the reef losing their keel. When we were here there were big rollers crashing in on both sides of the entrance to the pass, and a day later very shortly before the morning slack water we watched a charter catamaran enter the pass, only to turn back half way. We could then see why, there were large rollers breaking right across the pass, a truly disastrous situation for any boat attempting to exit, and in the dark this situation would probably not have been obvious.
The small motu of Tetamanu on the eastern side of the pass is home to a few residents who obviously enjoy remote living and a small hotel (known as a Pension) with a dive shop. It was nice to wander around and stretch our legs and after being barked at by a local pooch she then decided to join us on our walk around the motu.
Snorkeling the pass was quite an experience, waiting for slack water at 3.30pm we took the dinghy into the pass and checked things out. There didn’t appear to be any current running so we started at the outer entrance and jumped in, towing the dinghy along with us. Not such a good place to start as it was deep and visibility poor so we moved over to the edge just before the breakers and got a much better view. The hard corals look healthy and there were plenty of fish around them, it was nice to see different varieties of tropical fish compared with the Caribbean. And of course a few black-tipped reef sharks came along to check us out, the biggest chunkiest of which had a remora attached to its belly and he patrolled the shallower reef passing us several times. As Jez chased the sharks around with the Go Pro I pulled along the dinghy occasionally using it as a barrier when Mr Chunky came a little too close for comfort.
We took a long time drifting along the coral wall on the edge of the pass, an hour and half to be exact, so by the time we had reached the end we were being carried along on an incoming tide of a couple of knots and with our heads now above water we realised it was starting to get dark! Time to hop back in the dinghy before we reached the building waves at the inner entrance, that wind against tide thing again. It was a great experience.
Our time in the Tuamotus has been ruled essentially by the weather, we have had a lot of dark cloudy days with plenty of rain and wind so it has rather restricted our activities. So after another wonderful lagoon sail back up to Rotoava, we got ourselves ready for the passage to Tahiti 420 miles away. With yet another strong south easterly wind on the horizon and a building south-west swell, we are making a dash for Tahiti before the northern end of Fakarava becomes too uncomfortable. With one last visit to the village on supply ship day we secured ourselves some lettuce and extortionately priced tomatoes, and after a cold beer watching out across the anchorage as the sun got lower in the sky we hopped in the dinghy and headed back to Joy. As we left the dock Jez noticed something flapping in the water and we thought it was a couple of manta rays as we could see the tips of their wings breaking the surface. Killing the engine we floated and watched for a few minutes, blinded by the sun going down. Just as we were about to give up watching one turned towards us, as it got closer we could see that those wing tips belonged to a huge manta ray, by far the biggest we have seen here. It glided right up to us with its mouth wide open brushing the dinghy with its wing before diving and disappearing. What an awesome sighting, and one I will certainly not forget in a hurry. So its farewell Tuamotus, Tahiti here we come!