Farewell Tahiti, a Tempest in the Tuomotus, and a Birthday in the Back of Beyond!
After a fabulous few days with friends walking and lunching on Moorea
we sailed back to the south of Tahiti to sail around Tahiti Iti (little Tahiti) or Presque Isle de Tuapoto, (almost the Island of Tuapotu), not quite an island as it is attached by an isthmus to Tahiti Nui (big Tahiti). The west coast of Tahiti Iti is surrounded by reef and due to the prevailing winds huge surf is generated here. The mystical wave Teapopo is like a wall of water that curls into a tunnel before breaking in a roaring, foaming mass which crashes onto the barrier reef. The Olympic surfing event is to be held here next year.
Contrary to this, the lagoons formed behind the reefs are calm and beautiful anchorages, but in order to get behind the reef you have to traverse a passe! These are often well marked but can be narrow and are just a little nerve wracking to enter as you head towards the breaking watery maelstrom to find a small flatter gap through which to drive your boat. Pilotage skills, proper planning and nerves of steel are essential!
Little Tahiti is another volcanic peak with jagged tall mountains and vertical waterfalls cascading across lush and verdant mountainsides. The abundant flora and fauna make it feel like Paradise here with fruit on the trees and fish in the sea, music and singing in the villages, especially now the Confinement is over! In fact we have virtually forgotten about about it until making contact with home to get updates. Inside the lagoons we saw dolphins every day and pilot whales in the ocean. The Humpback breeding season starts in late June and we very much hope to see these beautiful creatures arriving here.
Sailing around the southern end of Tahiti Iti we dropped anchor in a lovely bay called Tautira, also Cooke's Anchorage, on The South East coast. Sheltered by a small promontory with the little town of Tautira on the end and one of the best coral reefs we have snorkelled on. Corals in a variety of shapes that are so colourful and almost luminous, they are astounding, like the azaleas and rhododendrons at Bodnant gardens in springtime! Of course the fish are also beautiful, colourful and are so varied in size and shape and patterns, hiding in the corals and under the rocky shelves they are also truly amazing. The small town of Tautira boasts a shop and a restaurant with 3 tables. Both received our patronage as we spent four nights anchored in this delightful bay with it's backdrop of mountains and vertical waterfalls.
Sailing on our own we have revived two person card and board games and I even managed to beat Richard at chess once! After which he upped his game and I have only managed a stalemate since that first victory! Backgammon is my forte so we swap around when I am getting fed up of being trounced! We have also managed to watch the entire 8 series of Game of Thrones! It has taken us 4 months of rationed episodes and now we are looking for another long series and also a decent wi fi signal to enable us to download some entertainment. Thankfully, books are easy to access with the Kindle and reading has always been enjoyed by us both. I have been rationing my puzzle books since the family bought one out at Xmas! Of course we were expecting to get to Australia by August so certain supplies and stores have lasted longer than was planned.
We finally said farewell to Tahiti on Sunday 31st May, two months after our arrival, and set off on an upwind passage Eastwards to the Tuomotu Archipelago. Trade wind sailing is usually a one way process timed for crossing oceans and seas in a down wind direction, so that the boat wind and waves are all going the same way! However, due to the Pandemic, we were not allowed to stop in the Marqueses and Tuomotos as we were instructed to bypass them and go directly to confinement in Papeete, without passing Go or getting £200! Once the inter island travel restrictions in French Polynesia lifted we decided to sail 250 miles back upwind to the Tuomotos archipelago. The Tuomotas are low lying coral atolls ringed with coconut palms enclosing a lagoon. What constitutes as land seems quite precarious with some shrubby plants and coconut palms sprouting from the broken up coral base, forming small islands (Motus) or narrow strips of land less than 1000 metres wide and all very flat! There are no verdant mountains, freshwater springs or waterfalls, no cultivated gardens or fruit trees. Water comes from rainfall, which is fairly frequent and squally. Supplies arrive fortnightly by ship and there is one flight a week.
The only farms here are in the lagoon and are not fish farms but appear to be for pearls, it is strange that there are no roadside stalls selling fruit and vegetables, no canoes being paddled by and no one fishing. Some of the fish in this area is poisonous to humans because of the coral they eat, and some may still be contaminated by radioactive waste from the nuclear bomb testing which finished in 1999.
There are 76 atolls but only a few navigable passes into the lagoons. Strong currents in the channels are caused by the entry of water over the windward barrier reef which then flows out of the lagoon through the passe at certain states of tide.
We arrived at the north pass of one of the largest atolls, called Fakarava, 50 hours after leaving Tahiti, having tacked through the low atolls during the night aided with the judicious use of the electronic plotter and radar and only after thorough planning using the paper charts and pilot books. Entry into the lagoon was timed perfectly for the predicted slack water, but predictions are only calculated guesses, so we found there was a current of 3 knots against us i.e. going north. Not really a problem as we can motor at 6-7 knots, but the wind had backed from Easterly to Northerly, so we had a situation called wind over tide, (opposite directions)which kicks up quite a bit of chop! Luckily we have experienced this situation plenty of times in the UK, and as the sky was overcast it felt a bit like we were sailing into Strangford Lough in Ireland, except warmer and with coconut palms! We were even greeted by a large Bottlenose dolphin just like Funghi the friendly dolphin in Dingle, west coast of Ireland, leaping and playing in the waves. However this was definitely outdone by the large Manta Ray that greeted us when we anchored. Later another two Manta Rays swam by with their mouths wide open just like to basking sharks do because they are filter feeders. An amazing sight to witness.
The following day remained grey and rained a lot, and felt like being at home, only 20 c warmer than the Uk. So, despite it being Wednesday, we pretended it was Sunday and had roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, carrots,and peas with gravy and red wine! We watched a film and had a very chilled day until about 18.00hrs, when the sun had set and the wind, which had been blowing off shore North Easterly at 20 knots, (Force 5, strong breeze) started to increase and to back round through 180 degrees to South West. This meant we were now being blown towards the shore which wasn't sandy and soft but fairly rugged and sharp with corals. Not a good situation and because the wind was now blowing across the 30 miles of water in this large lagoon, waves gradually increased in size and started to curl and break around us. We had left the dingy locked alongside the boat which was now becoming quite lively in the choppy waves. It had filled with rainwater during the day so Richard put on his life jacket climbed in and bailed it out. Not an easy task as it was moving boisterously, snatching at the tethering rope and pitching and bumping into Celtic Star. We thought it might be more protected behind the big boat so moved it round and secured it with 3 ropes! It did survive the storm though was flying about all over the place with the outboard still on as it was too rough to lift off. Even worse we had anchored behind a catamaran and now we had blown around 180 degrees ending up in front of it and and in the increasing wind and waves, far to close for comfort. We were worried the anchor was going to drag backwards, more chain out means more weight and better holding but we could not do this because then we would drop back into the catamaran. The waves grew steadily bigger and now Celtic Star was tossing and rolling and feeling very uncomfortable. Two metre high waves started breaking over the length of the boat into the cockpit, rain was blasting down and water seemed to be hitting us from all angles making it difficult to see and we were soaked and shivering despite the spray hood and Bimini being up! We had put our life jackets on earlier, not a normal occurrence at anchor, and as the wind reached a howling 46 knots (Force 10) we also clipped on with safety tethers. Richard started the engine and spent 90 minutes bravely steering the boat this way and that to avoid the catamaran whose bows were metres from our stern and crashing up and down through an arc of 5 metres in the waves. The conditions made it impossible for us to lift the anchor and move out into the dark and stormy seas. Meanwhile the other boats were experiencing similar problems, near to us a monohull turned sideways to the waves, a sign the anchor was not holding, and ended up being blown onto the coral reef with waves hitting the beam of the boat and pushing them further on shore, spray flying off the keel of the boat high in the air, a terrifying sight. Celtic Star was snatching at the anchor and rearing though the waves, when another catamaran appeared on our other side and careered past in the darkness to be hurled up on the shore alongside the monohull, we were now very very frightened. A loud crack and bang from our bows terrified us further and Celtic Star stopped responding to the helm, even under full throttle. We had no idea what had happened and now we had turned sideways to the breaking waves, heeling over at a dramatic angle, pitching and yawing and getting closer to the wrecked boats. Richard couldn't get the bow of the boat to turn back into the wind and drive it away from the shore and with the rain and surf and noise we were fearful that we would be hit the reef shortly. Richard desperately battled with the waves and then saved us and the boat by turning Celtic Star stern to the wind and waves, a manoeuvre that a boat will always accomplish due to the hull shape and aqua dynamics. The problem was we might have got the anchor chain caught around the propeller, which would be disastrous. Meanwhile, I had to find out what caused the loud bang from the bow, so I clipped to the safety line on deck and crawled slowly along the sloshing decks. Having made it to the bows I lay spread eagled and held tight as the boat planted her nose deep down into the waves and then lifted soaring to the sky! Who needs theme parks when you have sailing as a lifestyle! The anchor chain was not visible over the bow roller and the roller fitting was bent. What I could see, between waves, was that the anchor chain had jumped off its winding cogs and run out all 60 metres of chain, plus 100 metres of nylon rope to the very end, called the bitter end which was secured by a small metal loop. The bang had been the breaking sound made by a 3 cm nylon snubbing line that secures the chain to a cleat, to take the weight off the windlass whilst at anchor. Crawling back soaked and shaking to impart the good news, I then returned slowly to the bows with a mooring line in order to secure the anchor rope and take the strain off the bitter end. We were thankful I managed to execute this task as we found out the next day that a couple of other boats lost their anchors, chains and rope as their bitter end broke. Other boats and damage to the bows from the chains pulling due to the sea conditions. One boat was damaged by another that broke free and hit them before the skipper,managed to drive forward and wait it out in the lagoon. Gradually, gradually the wind subsided and the waves slowly reduced to a manageable size, eventually we dried off and came below decks for a nice cup of tea and a large tot of rum and a shaky de-brief. This bizarre, intense squall had not been forecast and is quite unusual, we have heard it called a weather bomb, it only lasted two hours but seemed like a lifetime.
The next day we stayed on board to recover and see the damage in daylight! To our delight World Arc fleet boats started to arrive from Tahiti, since the rally has been postponed until next year, we have renamed the rally boats Sailors Of the Lost Arc! SOLA! Our fleet is depleted as some folks have gone home, or remain in Tahiti, one has set off for Australia, but the other island nations are not open to cruising boats yet. We were pleased to see everyone and hosted a celebratory get together in our cockpit!
The next day Richard and I experienced a brilliant Drift dive through the North passe. We dropped straight down to into 30 m and caught the in going current along the sea bottom over a coral wall and into a ravine called Aladdin's Cave where many, many fish hide from the current and the sharks. The current was fairly strong and it was more of a zoom, than drift dive! We actually felt like we were flying along with no control, which was fun and a bit scary! Our dive leader instructed us to hold on to the coral to observe the wonderful underwater world, so rich and diverse it felt like being in an aquarium! I expected to see a human face looking in!
Continuing our exploration of Fakarava we sailed south to an anchorage half way down the island and spent a couple of days doing chores and checks on the boat. The tiny beach bar offered only beer and a day pass for wi fi and it felt very remote. The next day we lifted our anchor under sail and had a lovely sail to the southern end of Fakarava where we dropped anchor under sail. Usually, sailing on and off moorings and anchor are skills demonstrated when teaching or taking exams, but are fun to practice and enjoy under relaxed sunny conditions.
The anchorage at the South West corner of Fakarava is called Hirafa, and is a remote extraordinary place. The trees and undergrowth dwindle and a coral pink spit of sand curls and extends like a flourish to a fine point in the lagoon, re-emerging as broken reef, sand bars and tiny islands that punctuate the breaking waves into the distance. Sitting on the sand to drink in the end of the world sensation I noticed the beach appeared to move as many hermit crabs picked up their shells and wondered off to nowhere. There are no roads here, a few houses or hut roofs are visible, and we are having difficulty connecting to wi -fi, so this place seems really in the back of beyond!
We organised another superb dive through the South passe, with unlimited fish and coral and of course sharks, and enjoyed dropping off the boat and drifting back to finish at the onshore dive hut, which is easier than clambering into the dive boat.
The next day we returned to the small bar at the passe to celebrate my birthday with a fantastic gathering of friends. We enjoyed a delicious mixed buffet, wine and best of all home made ( thanks Nicole and Caroline) cakes and cookies! .This was followed by snorkelling just off the boardwalk that runs over the reef.
There were 18 people who needed transport from our anchorage, so we took a couple of the big boats for a jaunt! I was chauffeured on a 67' yacht which was very lovely, especially as we continued to party on this big boat after we got back to the sheltered beach at Harifa. It was a wonderful day in an extraordinary place with lovely people.
The next day I spent recovering! but managed to swim ashore for non alcoholic sundowners held on the end of the world spit of sand, where we were lucky to see the green flash as the sun disappeared!
For the next week or two we will follow our own plans and explore different islands before rendezvousing with everyone at the end of June in the north of the archipelago.