The Dreamy Tuamotu
Our Tuamotu Experience…
The Tuamotu Archipelago is a stretch of coral atoll islands that separate the Marquesas and Tahiti. A band of or low-lying, palm-tree-covered sand spits that are inhabited scarcely, and make up some tricky navigation hazards— but excellent water visibility and diving.
Once my Dad flew into Nuku Hiva, we took off, out of the “big city” of Taiohae, and over to Daniel’s Bay, which is just 5 miles the west. We chose this as our jumping off point so we could gather some fresh fruit, take a hike and a quick swim in a quiet anchorage before making the 500 mile jump to our first anticipated atoll. We planning to start at Makemo, drop Dad off in Fakarava, and then work our way up. Several of our friends has left the week before us, and were sending text messages via Delorme, telling us how beautiful Fakarava was… and to high-tail is over to the Tuamotus.
Our passage ended up being just slightly less than four full days— and we flew! The first two days we experienced good, strong winds and periodic squalls, where Sedna would be sailing 7 knots under the jib and 2nd reefed mainsail. The wind was coming more from the ESE— which put us on a beam reach, just hauling across some large wind waves. For the second two nights, the squalls and rain subsided, the winds calmed and clocked around more northerly, allowing up to sail more downwind. Dad was able to experience several points of sail on the wide open ocean, and he did great… despite the constantly 15-20 degree heel. He shared in our galley and head challenges at sea. However, I did have Dad bring down some backpacker freeze-dried meals for us, and that decreased our time in the galley immensely! Hallelujah.
The first atoll we visited was Makemo, a 36-mile long stretch of coral that just barely rises out of the ocean. Most of these atolls in the Tuamotu have narrow passes, where the tidal water surges in and out, allowing vessels to enter around slack tide. We managed to time out entrance into Makemo perfectly, under sail and motor. Once in, we turned upwind toward the east end of the atoll, and that’s where the real fun began. For the rest of the day we short-tacked upwind, dodging coral bommies that rose out of the lagoon. Both Dad and I were on watch while Clif steered. It required all three sets of eyes to avoid these bommies that just lay under the surface. Our reward? A shallow anchorage all to ourselves, clear turquoise waters, and no boats in sight.
After swimming and resting up on the eastern corner of Makemo, we back up to the pass and the small village to retrovision and use a little wifi. The highlight of the village was visiting with all the children. I later learned that Makemo has a boarding school for students living on more remote atolls. I was impressed as the number of children just swimming, fishing and playing at the waterfront on a Sunday afternoon. Before leaving Mexico, I had purchased about 25 pairs of children’s swim goggles to give away as gifts in more remote places… with the amount of kids jumping off the pier and playing pool-like water, I thought of no better place to give them away. I put on my swimsuit and rowed my bag of goggles over to the children, and when several of them realized I was giving gifts, it was sheer chaos! I had to limit the goggles to the younger children, and even then, have kids share (which wasn’t popular). After the goggles were dispensed, I helped adjust them and teach some of the kids how to use them. I really enjoyed diving off the pier with a small group of kiddos that where interested in practicing their swimming skills— it was a personal highlight… and bonus that the water was warm and unbelievably clear!
After purchasing some provisions in town (baguettes, croissants and other essentials…), we took off for our last Makemo anchorage, which was about three-quarters of the way downwind in the atoll. Three boats shared the anchorage with us the first night, and the second we had the beach all to ourselves. After consulting some fishermen in the village, Clif decided to try spearfishing on the nearby reef for small grouper. There was a wealth of fish, as well as some reef sharks. This was our first swimming spot where reef sharks were constantly present around the boat. Clif easily speared the grouper, while I was the reef shark look out. Not 20 seconds after Clif speared the fish, a black tip reef shark began to circle the exact spot where the fish was killed— but hadn’t quite figured out that lunch was swimming away on Clif’s speargun. We speedily finned back to the dinghy, which was anchored not far away, and just as Clif through the spear gun, fish and himself into the boat, three other 3-4ft Black-tips began to circle the dinghy. The immediate reaction of the nearby sharks was enough for us to make the decision that spearfishing would probably not be a regular pastime in French Polynesia. BUT, the grouper was delicious!
One overnight passage took us out of Makemo atoll and over to Fakarava, where we spent the rest of out Tuamotu time. Fakarava is a gem— the first place we’ve sailed where we felt like we could stay longer… much longer. The small village of Rotoava followed one long paved road, homes were staked out over the lagoon, locals rode bicycles everywhere, fresh baguettes in the early morning and a beach bar that served sun-downers accompanied by slow, but still existing, wifi. This is where Dad took off— getting to swim in the warm clear waters a couple more times before flying back to Papeete. Before his departure, we also visited a Black Pearl Farm where we learned about the process of farming pearls and purchasing some ourselves. Rotoava also had a wonderful family that had set up there home as a cruiser hangout (Fakarava Yacht Services), where we were able to use internet, wash clothes, rent bikes and fill out propane tank at a fairly inexpensive price.
Fakarava was the one place we knew we would spend some money, specifically on scuba diving. The two passes, both north and south, have several dive centers and hold world-class drift diving, where to travel with the current into the lagoon, along with hundred of grey, black-tip and white-tip reef sharks. Both passes were great to dive in their own way, but the South Pass diving is unreal. The water visibility on an incoming current was always 100+feet, you could grab hold of a small piece of coral and which grey reef sharks pass a foot or two in front of your face. They gather in large groups during the day, swimming against the current— very docile, but then, at night, they move around the pass quickly and with much more chaos. It was at the South Pass we were able to do a night dive and sit on the bottom of the pass with flash lights and watch the show!
If you want to learn more about the Fakarava South Pass and the shark diving, National Geographic just printed an article in the May 2018 magazine on the Grouper Spawn coming up in a month. Also, Nat Geo is releasing a documentary this summer: 700 Sharks: Into the Dark. Check it out here! OR, just Google "Fakarava Shark Dives" and you'll come up with a ton of Youtube Videos to watch and experience exactly what we saw underwater...
The final highlight of Fakarava was the meet-up of all three Juneau boats: Oso, Merrion and Sedna, near the moth of Hirifa. Oso and Merrion left from Juneau this past summer, and it was a blast hearing about their passage down to Mexico, as well as across the Pacific. Both boats plan on traveling to Australia by the cyclone season and selling their boats before returning home. We had several days of dinner parties and sundowners. We pulled out our kiting gear for the first time in years, also with Travis (on Merrion), who has quite a few on their boat. Travis and Clif were invited to come spearfishing with a local fishermen, so their spent a morning just shooting fish for him to sell in town. There were only two families that lived on the beach, and they were only there part time (kind of like having a cabin at a fish camp). We spent time with one of the families, playing with their three children in the water, letting them take turns on our paddleboard, and being good students as they showed us how to harvest cocunuts, both green and brown (copra, dried coconut). Clif gave them a set of goggles, as I still had a few left over from Makemo. The time with them was very sweet, and again, we could have stayed in the anchorage for another week, but there are so many neat little spots to explore, we have to keep moving.
Next for us…
I’m currently writing this as we are motoring, yes, motoring, across from Fakarava to Tahiti. We are going to anchor outside of Papeete and bask in the high-speed internet and large grocery stores! Connie, one of my good girlfriends will be coming in to visit for a week, and we will spend the rest of our month in the Society “Leeward” Islands (Bora Bora, Huahine, Maupiti…).
Passage to Tonga…
The next big jump is from the Society Islands to Tonga, which is 1,400 miles, not a small feat. Many cruisers stop several times in the Cook Islands to break up the passage. We are unsure of our departure date, or stopover plans, but we will be headed to the Vava’u Island Group toward the end of July.