A Year at Sea! 13,400 miles, 11 Countries, 2 Continents and 11 island groups visited!
We set sail from Deganwy on July 5th 2019 and what a year it has been, for us and the whole world! If the pandemic had not halted our progress we would be now be 1200 miles further west in the islands of Fiji heading for Vanuatu and arriving in Australia in August. July 5th would be our half way celebration as we planned to be home in the UK in July 2021. However, we are still cruising in French Polynesia (FP), which is fabulous, but future plans are still vague. According to sailing websites the great re-opening of borders and therefore, sailing destinations is about to happen. Currently Fiji has opened up for transiting yachts, they are offering one port of entry for boats to be allowed to provision, make repairs and fuel before departing to a pre-booked destination. Covid testing and quarantine regulations are in place. We realise how very lucky we are to be allowed to stop and to cruise in FP, health risks have been minimal here and because there are no international tourists at the moment we are seeing the islands as they were 10 years ago. The local people are very friendly and welcoming and in the remote islands the locals live a very simple, crime free life, farming coconuts, fishing and hanging out.
There is a bit of tourism in the remote atolls, aimed mainly at the Tahitians, and the French. The down side is it is quite expensive here because supplies are brought in by ship or by plane!
French is the common language but Tahitian and local dialects are now being encouraged to flourish again, a bit like Welsh! However, where Welsh has many consonants and few vowels, Tahitian has many vowel sounds and few consonants! For instance, we bypassed The island of Toau and came through the Tuheiava passe, to anchor at the village of Tuaherehera! It is easy to say, as every letter is sounded, so Fa'aa has 3 a sounds. It is quite comical to hear us discussing sailing plans after a few sherberts!
The outstanding wildlife, awesome landscapes and beautiful sea have made FP a place that is dear in our hearts and perfect for passing the time as we wander through the many islands and wonder where to go next.
Our first stop after after Fakarava, was a tiny atoll called Ahe, 105 miles to the North West of this island group. We set off mid afternoon on the 15th June and had a fabulous fast sail overnight, with stars in abundance on a dark velvet backdrop. Saturn and Jupiter were bright as ever and a sliver of the waning moon appeared late in the night just before Venus, rising as the morning star, shone brilliant and beautiful to herald the rose tinted dawn. We sailed in company with a couple of other yachts from our fleet called Maximilian and Island Wanderer.
The lagoon at Ahe was only 6 miles across and once inside the lagoon we could see, encircling us a string of small islands (Motus ) that form the perimeter. Entering the narrow and shallow pass at 0800 we made our way cautiously to an anchorage to rest. This lagoon has not been fully surveyed and whilst there are some navigational marks the rest is eyeball stuff! This means someone standing on the bows looking ahead for turquoise water which signifies shallower depth or dark shapes which signify coral "bommies " known by the locals as coral potatoes. The sun needs to be high and polarised sun glasses also help to distinguish changes in water colour! The corals grow out of the sand rising quite steeply like statues or forming a blob which is why they are called coral potatoes! These are dangerous to anchor near as the anchor chain gets tangled around them and gets stuck making it difficult to lift the anchor. This is what happened to the yachts that were wrecked on the reef at Fakarava. Their anchor chains eventually broke as the forces applied from the movement of the bows in the big waves, was not taken up with any slack.
We spent three nights at Ahe, our first anchorage was at the Cocoperle Lodge, which was closed for the confinement, but the owner, Frank, opened the bar especially for us! The pool and ping pong tables had seen better days and the biting insects were uncomfortably numerous but it was nice to go ashore for a beer!
Frank showed us where to take our dinghies ashore to visit a small part of the original forest which has not been cleared for coconut plantations. It was interesting but not in a romantic way, the forest canopy was full of roosting frigate birds which meant there was piles of smelly guano in the undergrowth, plus there were so many large land crabs scuttling about (not keen) and digging holes that the path had become undermined in places.
I had dressed for snorkelling not walking and the spider webs we walked through
also made me shudder, so I was glad when we made it through to the ocean side of the atoll. However the landscape here felt very exposed and blasted with sun and big waves crashing onto the reef,
compared to the tranquil lagoon we had left 15 minutes before, so we returned to snorkel in the shallow corals where we saw lots of clams with beautiful coloured lips, blue, turquoise, brown, green, black, as well as many colourful fish.
After our exciting visit to the ancient forest we moved to anchor at the tiny village of Tenukupara on the other side of the lagoon, following our inward track so we did not hit any coral or reef. When we arrived a canoe race was about to start and about 15 local canoes with out- riggers were getting ready to set off just as we were manoeuvring to drop anchor, unknown to us, in the middle of the event! Oops! The locals in French Polynesia are very friendly and welcoming and they were bemused rather than cross. The next day we tied our dinghy to the town dock when we went to explore and returned to find we had stolen the usual spot for two woman delivering their vegetables to sell. We managed to made amends by purchasing some wonderful fresh provisions which they were delighted to sell us.
After snorkelling on another fantastic reef in the afternoon, Richard and I left Ahe passe at 17.00 in order to get to the next island, called Rangiroa, in time for the predicted morning slack water. We had a dreadful night with massive torrential squalls and a head on wind, which were not forecast and we had to use the radar and electronics to keep a look out as nothing was visible in the dark and rain outside the cockpit! Eventually it stopped raining as the sun rose and we arrived at Passe Tiputa at 0900hrs. We could see quite big waves in the gap and found it was quite feisty and challenging keeping the boat steady as we navigated through because at the narrowest spot we had 5 knots of tide against us! Because it has been raining and windy the lagoons fill up with water from the waves breaking over the reef on one side of the atoll which pours out of the passe on the other side, causing the current. Despite using full throttle, with our speed through the water at 7 knots, the water was moving the other way, so our speed over the ground was only 2 knots! It's like trying to go up on a down escalator! As we came in large bottle nose Dolphins were enjoying the waves, jumping and leaping with glee, but we were concentrating too hard on getting through the passe to take any photos. I tried again a few days later when we enjoyed lunch at this lovely venue overlooking the passe, but I still managed to miss photographing the leaping Dolphins!
Rangiroa is a large atoll and we crossed the 16 miles to the south islands to hide from a windy spell and to explore the extraordinary landscape of the Isles de Recife, or Ai Ai. We had learnt in Lanzarote that Ai Ai is a Hawaiian word for a type of lava. These atolls are the oldest islands in French Polynesia, the coral atoll is all that remains of the volcanic mountains which erode and sink to leave the ring of coral that surrounded them forming a lagoon. Tahiti is a younger island with its mountains still present and its barrier reef encircling the land. The lava we saw was ancient and very sharply shaped,almost like a holly bush and it created the most astonishing juxtaposition of colours and textures with the ocean and the sand and coral islands.
We met a couple of other boats and found a shack on shore, with a half oil can BBQ which we presumed is a tourist day trip place, but worked well as a pop up venue for us, complete with friendly pig!
It was so much fun we repeated the party the next evening with a few other boat crews. One of the guys had caught a Grouper and cooked it on the BBQ. for us and we all took salads. We also found a coconut spike for removing the husk and the graters used for efficiently removing the white flesh, if you squeeze the flesh in a woven bag you can make coconut milk. Richard is getting very proficient at grating his coconuts and now he wants to buy a machete!
Back up north we joined a couple more of our fleet and continued our exploration by going on a guided boat trip to another area of the big lagoon called the Blue Lagoon. On the way there our guide stopped the boat, put a mask and diving weight belt on before he jumped into the water to catch our lunch with his harpoon gun!
The Blue Lagoon was another exquisite place for us to explore. The guide and his cousins cooked for us, showed us how to make palm leaf bags and played S. Pacific music. What a fantastic day in a remote tiny place in the middle of a huge ocean!
Things got even more exciting the following day when we dived in the Tiputa pass and actually met and stroked the Dolphins we had seen on our arrival. Not only that, we saw a Manta Ray, a large green Moray eel, a Loggerhead turtle, a big sailfish like a Marlin and many many other fish. It was amazing. We hosted a final get together of the six SOLA boats on board Celtic Star before setting sail to the next atoll called Tikehau, famed for the large Manta Ray population and also to hide from yet another windy spell. I am not sure the Pacific is actually named correctly, we have had some very challenging weather during our month in the Tuomotu archipelago. We found ways of and passing the time together exploring the island or visiting each other on board, playing cards with Maximilian and Island Wanderer ( playing Shithead!) and of course there is always maintenance to do!
After 5 nights the weather had not improved, the squalls, rain and wind had made the anchorage uncomfortable, the low lying atolls providing little protection from strong winds and waves, so we headed back to Papeete for chores and chandlery.
It was like coming home to a familiar place and fantastic to see green mountains and a vertical landscape! The town was buzzing with everything now open, we had not seen the full glory of the the flower market and the shops and stalls. Great to be back in Tahite! Next week we will head off again to explore the Isles Sous du Vent, or Leeward Islands to the North West. All of these are high islands and the one you may have heard of is called Bora Bora.