TUAMOTU ATOLLS  AND THE NOT SO PACIFIC

You  may think that we are basking on a tropical beach sipping pina
coladas........Actually:

I am writing this at anchor 60 metres upwind from a coral reef just  under
the surface and over which waves are breaking in winds averaging 30knots,
gusting to 50 knots trying to push Intrepid back onto the reef. Our anchor
is in 18 metres of water, we have all our 55 metres of chain out, and the
anchor is holding ......................Beyond the coral reef lies the palm
tree covered motu (small coral islet) of Poripare, one of about 20 which
extend in a circle about 5 miles radius and together make up the Atoll of
Ahe in the Toamotu Archipelago. Beyond the motu lies the Pacific Ocean which
within 1/2 mile drops to 4000 metres deep, as the atoll we are on was
originally a volcano that erupted up from the seabed, spewed lava for 1000's
of years, then eroded down to sea level, when zillions of corals started
growing on the slightly raised parts round the rim of the volcano to create
the atoll we have now, with a large lagoon in the middle about 40 metres
deep that used to be the crater of the volcano.

There is only one entrance
to the lagoon through the coral reefs that surround the atoll on the seaward
side, and the Pacific and the water in the lagoon rush into and out of this
narrow pass every 4 hours (in) and 8 hours (out). Its called Tereroa Pass,
and its reckoned to be one of the easier in
the Tuamotus. Our British Admiralty Pilot gives this
description: 'It is suitable for small vessels drawing less than 4 m but
local knowledge is necessary. It should only be entered during the outflow
from the lagoon and with favourable light to discern the dangers'. Our
French Pilot Book adds that: 'the current in the pass (4-5 knots) is not
especially turbulent  and does not produce especially dangerous tidal waves
except with a north west wind'. So that's all right then.

In the lagoon, a few isolated houses are scattered around, some on stilts
right out on the
water usually on a coral head which rises straight up from 40metres depth
right up to the surface or almost. The one village, Tenukupara, has about 50
houses, a small jetty and a nicely protected anchorage in water 10 metres
deep - but with coral heads every 15 metres or so extending up to within 1-2
metres of the surface,and which can either bash Intrepid or tangle her
anchor chain as the wind changes direction.

In complete contrast to the weather we have now, we completed our sail from
the Marquesas (about 480 miles) in winds that often were as little as 4
knots, so had our BGM and Genoa poled out, or had to motor until our fuel
started to run low (we carry 360 litres of diesel plus another 100 in cans
but we prefer not to use the cans). There is only one filling station in all
the 500 by 200 miles of Ocean that contain the 50 inhabited Tuamotus (in the
capital, Rangiroa) and we were only visiting there in 2 weeks time, so I had
decreed that we keep a minimum of 120 litres of fuel in reserve - especially
in view of the passes, and the currents between islands which can push
yachts 30 miles and more in a single night.

But the fishing - give a sea fisherman 3 wishes to catch whatever species he
wants, and chances are he would wish for Blue Marlin, Mahi-Mahi, and Wahoo.
We already had the Marlin (albeit self released) and Mahi-Mahi (Dorado), and
on the 4th day of the sail from the Marquesas, just as our fresh meat was
running low and the sun setting in to the ocean, the reel went wild. Wahoo
are the fastest fish in the sea, with razor sharp teeth that can cut a hand
open to the bone in a single slash. They have acute eyesight, and I think it
only took my lure because of the fading light. I managed to slow it after
300 yards, then slowly pulled it in with many reverses until it was close to
the boat. In the fading light Chris thought at first it was a large
Barracuda
and we were going to release it, but the teeth were wrong, and with torches
and books we identified it as a large Wahoo, 4 feet long, 8 Kg (20lbs).
Chris gaffed it and (carefully) we brought it on board. It had cut through
29 of the 30 plastic segments of the lure, and the only reason we had
managed to land it was the 300 lb nylon line which I had used to make the
lure extended about 1 foot beyond the lure, and I had managed to keep the
main 50lb line tight enough to keep the Wahoo away from it - he would have
sliced through thin 50 lb line in a second.  Did I say that Wahoo are
reckoned to be the best fish to eat in the sea? Even more when they are
caught at 6.15 pm and are on the BBQ at 7pm. Well, about 1/10 of him anyway.

We had to enter Tiareroa Pass into Ahe during minimum outflow, and this is
determined by the time of moonrise (there are no tide tables). The outflow
begins at moonrise less 3 hours,  reaches maximum outflow at the time the
moonrises, then slackens before the inflow at Moonrise plus 5 hours. We had
watched the (tiny) moon rise at 5am, so planned to be at the entrance at
8.30am. The atolls are so low and the charts so incomplete, that it is not
even easy to make out which is the pass, but we threaded our way through the
outlying reefs and were in the pass doing 1.5 knots against a 4.5 knot
outflow. The depth shallowed to 2 metres, then we were through, and turned
right towards the village 5 miles away. But the Tuomotus, which used to
trade copra (dried coconut) now make their living from cultivating black
pearls. The farms are everywhere, with the oysters (tiny to large) strung on
nylon ropes below the surface. We had to have Chris in the bow to spot these
and the coral heads which could rip the keel from Intrepid if we hit one
going too fast. With the sun behind us you can spot them, but they are not
charted so its all visual navigation, aided by 5 beacons marking the worst
of them.

We anchored finally just off the village, the only yacht there,  just as an
interisland freighter we had seen enter was leaving. Finding the right place
to anchor between the coral heads was interesting (and caused a few
arguments) but we kept our nerve and found the right spot, inflated our
dinghy and went ashore. Within 5 minutes we had been asked if we wanted any
black pearls 'to exchange'. Turned out that Hero's father worked in pearl
'station', and we ended up exchanging 3 cd's and 4 batteries for his Walkman
for 5 slightly imperfect silvery/black pearls, each about 1 cm across. (This
apparently is the going rate - and one CD was a Bob Marley - selling pearls
is illegal, bartering is not???). The 'roads' are sand, the policier doubles
up as the mayor, the 3 small shops open when they please, and a wonderful
woman (called by everyone grandmere) bakes bread and melt in your mouth pain
au chocolat (which were really for the children but since she had about 50
of
them we felt there were enough left). The houses are shaded by tall palm
trees in stately rows, there is a small school, and beautiful white painted
church, and transport to the recently built small airport in the north of
Ahe is by boat. The only water is collected from rain on the roof tops into
large tanks - and they were running low - luckily we make our own water so
were self sufficient.

We had 130 litres of fuel, our bare minimum, so asked if we could buy more.
'Desole' -  the freighter would probably have sold us a 200 litre drum
(Shell of course - they make the best oil drums), but that would not return
for a week. But the work boat Bahama Star was there, and the Chief Engineer
agreed to sell us 200 litres from his own bunker diesel fuel for 15000 CFP's
($150)
(which I think will go to a crew fund). So we tied Intrepid alongside the
120 foot work boat which is constructing a new jetty and pipeline. Diesel
engines will tolerate almost anything except wet or dirty fuel and dirty
oil, and since fuel in these parts does not have the quality control you
might expect in USA or Europe, we always fine filter fuel before it goes
into our tank - this is a 30 micron filter that will remove water molecules
and the larger dirt. Lucky we did too, because in spite of our insistence,
the Bahama Star had water in the transfer pipe and was taking the fuel
before their water separator. Our filter held it up, we jointly worked out
what was happening and finally resumed the transfer. Neither boat had a
meter, so it was a matter of trust, we topped our tanks, handed over 15000
CFP in cash, and felt much better. We really do not want to run out of fuel
or have the engine stop because of dirty fuel in the middle of a 5 knot
current pushing us onto a reef.

We tried to arrange a meal at a local house, (there is no Guest House or
Bar) but  had insufficient notice, so picnicked on the neighbouring motus,
snorkelled on wild coral heads 20 metres high, tested Nicky and Jill's nerve
with 3 feet long black and white tipped sharks ('sweet little things'). I
saw a 5 foot long black
shark 10 metres directly beneath me,
Chris saw turtles and a moray eel, and on land we examined the piles of
discarded
pearl shells with lustrous mother of pearl, and unwanted fallen coconuts.
The 150 bananas tied on our backstay are ripening at the rate of 30/day, so
its a challenge to stay ahead - fried fish and banana chips went down well,
banana sandwiches, baked fish in coconut and banana etc...

It was good to be in one place for a few days, but we wanted to see a few
more
of the Tuamotus. Because of the time restrictions on entering and leaving
the passes, you have to often sail
overnight in order to be able to enter the next pass at a safe state of
current. We worked out that if we anchored next to the pass, and left at
sunrise ((6pm)  the next morning we could juuuuuust make the 55 miles due
south to the pass at
Apatiki by 4pm before the outflow became too strong for us to get in.
Finding an anchorage in the middle of the uncharted reefs and coral heads
was .....interesting, especially as a significant (and unforecasted) weather
front was starting to batter Ahe, and when we woke next morning (today,
Tuesday 10th May) at 5.30am, the howling winds persuaded us that it was
wiser to stay put than exit the pass when we could not be sure how or when
we could re-enter this or any other pass in 30 knot winds opposing a 5 knot
outflow. So we have a day waiting on weather, which is sometimes the right
thing to do. Jill's face showed her relief........

We got in more weather forecasts, (all blandly unconvincing), Anaconda
emailed that they also were storm bound - had been for days. We were up at
0515am next morning - the wind was down to 16-20 knots, and we decided
To go for  it. The anchor took some getting up (just as well considering
that
44lbs was all between us and being shipwrecked on the reef behind us), but
we were through the pass by 6am, and had an exhilarating sail in easterly
winds doing 8 knots towards Apatiki. Chris and Jill loved it. Until midday.

When the wind came round to an (again) unforecast southerly direction, and
increased to full gale Force 8 34-40 knots from right where we were going.
Intrepid had enjoyed her 6 hours of nice sailing and now she was magnificent
in these more testing conditions. We sailed for as long as we could then
when the wind angle became impossible we motored through increasingly high
waves until we hit another squall just off the pass into Apatiki with
driving rain which reduced visibility to just 100 metres. We waited about 20
precious minutes for it to clear, then went for the pass on what should have
been the last of the inflow, steering exactly the course our GPS and charts
indicated, Nicky at the chart table, I on the  wheel.

Its as well we had
waited for the visibility to improve, because when we were just 1/4 mile
off the entrance it became apparent that this GPS course would take us
straight onto the needle sharp coral reefs on the left of the entrance. The
GPS of course is correct, the problem is that the charts on which the GPS
plots the position were drawn often 150 years ago by sextant and they are
often 200 metres out - as in this case. So we adjusted course by eye to line
ourselves up and went through the pass at 7 knots with the engine at tick
over --  straight into the standing waves at the inner end of the pass that
became bigger and bigger the closer we came to them. The problem was that
the 30 knot winds from the south were hitting the still inrushing sea just
where the pass shallows up, and creating VERY steep 3 metre high standing
waves, only 4 metres apart. We could do nothing other than keep straight -
there were still coral reefs on either side, and there was no way to turn
back. We hit the first wave and it ran right over Intrepid's bow towards the
cockpit, then down into the next wave and another, water almost continuously
over the front half of Intrepid so she seemed more like a submarine, I was
drenched, sea water in my eyes, but we managed to keep straight, then dodge
a bit as we could see gaps in the waves, then veer left a bit as we could
see the calmer water as the reef deepened, and then we were through. This by
the way is also one of the easier passes (but doing it in 30 knot winds is
not).

We still had to find an anchorage in the middle of the coral heads that
litter the (uncharted) lagoon. We finally tucked Intrepid away behind the
only shelter -
a small coral reef in front, reef behind, and 4 foot waves in the lagoon
shaking us as dusk fell. Interesting day.

But after a rolly night, not a place to stay, so although we continued to
have 30-35 knot winds, making it difficult to get the anchor up, and to
navigate in the lagoon, we motored off aiming for what seemed to be the best
shelter available - in the NE corner 8 miles away. We had Chris and Nicky
(alternating every 30 minutes), standing on the bows peering ahead into the
rain and spray, sometimes being lifted off the deck by the waves, trying to
spot reefs and coral heads. In the 10 miles we saw 8 major reefs just
visible because of the waves breaking over them within 200 metres of our
course, so we had to weave our way through them, until finally after 3 hours
we started gain the shelter of the NE motu, weaved our way round the final
coral heads in 10 metres of water (easier to see now as the waves decreased)
and dropped anchor in a perfect location, just as the sun came out and the
wind died to 15-20 knots.

The beach is yellow sand, palm trees behind, 2 abandoned shacks, otherwise
we are the only boat and the only people within 10 miles. We strolled along
the beach, picking up coconuts for pina coladas, spotting 3 foot sharks
swimming within 3 metres of the shore, complete with their 'gang' of 10 or
so yellow and black butterfly fish swimming underneath, then snorkelled on
coral heads.

The Pina Coladas were perfect as the sun set, the fish with banana, fresh
coconut and vanilla even better, so maybe your first thoughts were correct
after all..........

We gather the UK election lacked the close call drama of the US election,
but we only get a very crackly BBC world service occasionally, and I havent
seen a UK paper for 3 months (oh the hardship), but we understand that Tony
Blair has a 3rd term, but will he resign for Gordon Brown to take over? It
somehow seems miles away.........

With all best wishes from the crew of Intrepid, Andy, Nicky, Chris and Jill.

13th May 2005
 

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