Category Archives: Tuamotus

Toau to Tahiti

As we planned for our passage from the Tuamotus to Tahiti, we looked at charts, measured distance and estimated how long it would take us to arrive based on our speed on past passages. And we were completely wrong. We departed Anse Amyot, at the north end of Toau, at 0600 on Wednesday, to be sure that, even if we only averaged 4 knots, we’d arrive at Papeete before sunset on Friday. Well, after motoring for just 7 hours in light and variable wind, we hit a big squall (or should I say, it hit us?), the wind filled in and we flew to Tahiti. We averaged more than 5.5 knots for the duration of the passage, and arrived off the Passe du Papeete at about 0200 on Friday. Fortunately, we were in the lee of the island by then, and were able to hold position until dawn. We entered Papeete harbor at about 0730, and were anchored to the south of town by 0930.

So now we’re in the big city, with internet, a giant Carrefour grocery and a marina laundromat!! There was no space in the marina, since it’s high season, but we’re managing quite well. Here are our last photos from the Tuamotus, and a couple from our passage and arrival in Tahiti. Enjoy.

More later, Michelle

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Big City, Here We Come

Yesterday we motored out of Passe Otugi, on the southeast side of Toau. We knew we needed to wait for slack tide, or go out on the flood (counter-intuitive), because we’d been told that the outgoing current gets really nasty here, and that the change from flood to ebb happens really quickly. Passe Otugi is really the only full “pass” into this atoll, so a lot of water moves through it. The day before, one of our group had sailed (no engine) out the pass on the tail end of the ebb, and gotten set by the cross-current right into a nasty “potato patch”. No harm, no damage, just a bit shaken by the sizable standing waves. We hoped to avoid that experience. So, we watched the tides and were fairly certain we knew when to go. The morning dawned flat calm, so we couldn’t have asked for better conditions. We hovered inside the pass for 20 minutes, or so, watching the waves flatten out as the current appeared to go slack. Mark lined us up on the range markers (placed on a coral reef i
nside the atoll!), and out we went. Our timing was great, as it felt like we had just a little outgoing current when we started, and then perhaps a knot, or so, against us as we completed the transit. Quick change for sure! I should probably back up and tell you that we entered this same pass 9 days prior, in very different conditions. On our entry, the wind was blowing 20 knots and the waves (swell plus wind waves) were 2-3 meters… However, we knew the compass bearing for the entry, knew that the tide was still flooding and had those range markers to keep us on course. On our entry, as I was (again) questioning our approach, Mark told me “trust me Spock, I got it”. Makes me laugh every time. I tried to focus on what our friends Terry and Heidi told us back in La Paz… “There will be waves breaking on both sides of the channel, and you’ll think you’re crazy for going in, but the passes are easier than you think and then you’re on the inside”. Right they were, and we had a n amazing week in that lagoon.

Toau is one of the atolls in the Fakarava UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and is seldom visited by yachts. With just one tricky pass for entry, and very little human habitation, this atoll is definitely “off the beaten path”. During our time anchored in the far eastern part of the lagoon, we had just the boats in our group for company, and a few others anchored just inside the pass, well to the northwest of us. The other boats we were with are all kiteboarders, so they had several days of good wind and too much fun. Mark and I went over to watch and photograph (pics to be posted when we get internet next), and then Mark got hooked. Carol and Livia, on S/V Estrellita gave him a few lessons in flying the kite and “body-dragging”, as the precursor to getting up on the board. One of these days, I think he may go in for a full set of lessons, but for the moment, he was all smiles with the time he had. We snorkeled the various reefs around us, and went ashore to explore the outer coast o
f the atoll at low tide. Of course, this was heaven for me, and I had to go back a second (and third) time with my camera! We discovered the strangest sea urchin I have ever met, and I gave it the name of “armadillo urchin” because of its armor-like appearance. This urchin wasn’t in my field guide, so I never found a common name for it, but my trusty Invertebrate Zoology textbook had a reference to it in the Chapter on Echinoderms. The genus is Colobocentrotus, for those of you interested in such things. There were also enormous pencil urchins, many small reticulated moray eels, parrotfish commuting between the reef crest and the deeper water and I even found a number of hermit crabs battling for a recently vacated snail shell.

Perhaps the best experience though, was a dive we did with four other people in the group. I’ll readily admit, though, that this dive was a “face your fear” moment for me, that paid off handsomely. The chance to dive on a remote, vibrant, healthy coral reef is becoming a rarity, as environmental degradation spreads through marine ecosystems, and I just couldn’t let my fears get in the way of such an opportunity. So, we took the dinghies well outside the pass (on the incoming tide, of course), jumped in the choppy, blue water and descended to the atoll’s outer reef. The minute I was on the reef, my fears were gone. It was indescribably beautiful, and SO healthy!! There were huge schools of bigeyes, and soldierfish, more groupers than we could count, I saw my first clown fish (think Nemo) huddled in a large anemone and countless other reef fish going about their daily routine. The current was strong, so we held on to knobs of coral to maintain position, and then turned to look
out into the blue. There were many big black jacks and a gorgeous, big yellowfin tuna, but the stars were most definitely the sharks. Dozens of blacktip, whitetip and gray reef sharks, as well as a number of silvertip sharks, glided beside and beyond us, and then the current pulled us into the pass. What a humbling experience, to watch creatures that have been doing this same dance for millenia, that have evolved together into a diverse, rich ecosystem. My sincere wish is that my youngest niece, Morgan, will still be able to see this vibrant, healthy world when she grows up. My one regret about this dive is that I didn’t bring the camera…

Which all brings us to today. We are on a mooring at a little “cove” on the northwest side of Toau, known as Anse Amyot. We stopped here to finish our preparations for the passage to Tahiti, because we can leave early tomorrow morning, and not be constrained by the tides and currents. It’s been a gray day, but we managed to collect nearly 15 gallons of rainwater, and the boat got a much-needed fresh water washdown. We’re planning to depart at first light tomorrow, in hopes of making it to Tahiti by sunset on Thursday. Once there, we’ll tackle all the “chores” of being in the city, and look forward to the arrival of our oldest niece, Taylor. She flies in next week, for a week with Aunt Michelle and Uncle Mark, and we’re really looking forward to sharing this with her. We’ll post a daily position report while on passage, and will try to get some more photos up ASAP.

For now, wish us a good passage, and we hope all is well in your corner of the world! Michelle

Solitude and Connection

One of the wonderful aspects of this cruising life is the opportunity to routinely experience the spaciousness of solitude. It’s been such a gift to be mostly free of the constant background noise, information overload and myriad technological distractions that are a normal part of modern life. After years of being tethered to a VHF radio, cell phone, satellite phone and/or ship’s intercom phone, I think Mark may appreciate this even more than I do. Here in the atolls of the Tuamotu, we listen to surf breaking on the outer reef and the wind in the rigging. We listen to the sooty and white fairy terns commuting from their night roosts out to the fishing grounds, as well as to the raucous calling of boobies, frigates and terns when they’re feeding on a shoal of fish. The sound of a school of fish jumping out of the water within 100 meters of the boat makes us both look to see what’s chasing them. Inevitably, no matter how remote we think our anchorage is, we hear at least one r ooster crowing at dawn, and his bevy of hens answering.

About a week ago, we were sitting in the cockpit just before sunset, talking with another sailor that we’d just met, and Mark jumped up because he heard something in the water. We ran out on deck in time to watch a giant manta ray swimming by the boat just 20 feet away, mouth wide open as it fed on the plankton that had moved up to the surface waters with the waning light. We could clearly see the entire animal, and watched for 10 minutes, or so, as it circled Cheers and was joined by a second animal before they both swam off to the south. That spot is now named “Manta Anchorage” in our logbook…

In contrast, one of the challenging aspects of this life is the limited contact we have with friends and family. So far, despite repeated attempts to make it so, we haven’t been able to “beam” our loved ones aboard, nor to use our ruby slippers to drop in on birthday parties, family events or dinners with friends. Trade-offs…

We have recently, however, made some wonderful connections with a diverse group of cruisers here in the Tuamotus. Several weeks ago, as we made our way south in Fakarava, we contacted a boat that we’d “met” on our passage from Mexico, over the Pacific Puddle Jump radio net. S/V Estrellita was anchored at Fakarava’s South Pass, and we wanted to rendezvous to actually meet in person. Entering that anchorage, we entered a small community, and have been part of it since. We are six boats, 12 people, in total, who would most likely never have met under any other circumstances, but have found a fabulous camaraderie here in French Polynesia. Two of the boats have spent several seasons here in the South Pacific, and have been somewhat traveling together here in the Tuamotus for the past 6 months. Both boats are U.S. registry, with an American couple from Lake Tahoe on one, and a British-American couple from NYC on the other. There’s also a French family, sailing with their 7 year-ol
d son, who arrived in French Polynesia last September from Galapagos. Carol and Livia on S/V Estrellita are Canadian, we’re another American boat and there’s also a French single-hander, and all three of us crossed the Pacific this spring, having arrived in French Polynesia within the past 2 months. It’s a fun, active group of people, and we’ve really enjoyed being in their company.

We joined Chris, from S/V Namaste, for a “lobster walk” one night last week, although Mark and I discovered that we’re not great lobster hunters as our excursion quickly turned into night tidepooling. We waded in the shallows along the atoll’s outer reef crest with flashlights in hand, hearing, but not seeing, the surf breaking 10-20 meters away. Along the way, we found nearly a dozen juvenile reticulated moray eels, a “sleeping” whitebar surgeonfish, and snakefish sea cucumbers stretching their bodies from a protected nook at the base of the reef rubble and “walking” their feeding tentacles along the sand in search of food, like a sci-fi vacuum cleaner. Mark found a rainbow swimming crab, and I had a feisty little reef crab face me down, claws fully extended as he backed into a coral crevice, looking for all the world like he was muttering, “You want a piece of me? You want a piece of ME?” Despite my training as a biologist, it’s hard for me not to anthropomorphize in situat ions like this.

In the past week, 6 people in the group have spent several days kiteboarding, while Mark and I had a fabulous time photographing them. Mark’s hooked now, and is hoping for a lesson or two, if the wind picks up later this week. We’ve shared several dinners and fun conversation, as well as just making the rounds by dinghy to chat with the “neighbors”. The day before yesterday, late in the afternoon, Neville delivered a freshly caught marbled grouper to us, after the spearfishers caught more than they could eat, and last night, we all met for a bonfire on the beach. In short, we’re enjoying both our solitude and some great connections with new people.

As for the “behind-the scenes”, life is not always sunshine and coconut palms, report… let it suffice to say that we’ve had a few “challenges” lately. When we anchored off the village of Rotoava last week, we managed to badly snag our anchor chain on coral heads not once, not twice, but THREE times, and I had to dive on the chain to free it every time. We’ve developed a small fuel leak, and it looks like we may need to have a professional mechanic look at the high-pressure injector pump on the engine. So… we’ll probably need to go to the big city of Papeete sooner than anticipated, since none of our field repairs seem to be working. Which may not be an entirely bad thing, as I’ll be able to do LAUNDRY!!! After having access to washing machines only 3 times in the past 3 months, and doing the occasional batch of hand laundry, I’m sure you can imagine how much I’m looking forward to a day at the Laundromat.

That’s all for now, here’s hoping that you’re having a great day, wherever you are! And, hey, check out the Transit of Venus on June 5 (Western Hemisphere) or June 6 (Eastern Hemisphere). Do an internet search to find out how and when to watch it, or go to your local Planetarium / Observatory, it’s a very rare event. It’s exciting for us because one of the primary reasons that famous British explorer Captain James Cook came to Tahiti in 1769 was to observe the Transit of Venus. Here we are, 243 years later, and we’re hoping to make the observation from nearly the same location that he did, Point Venus, Tahiti!

Au revoir, Michelle

Fakarava Photos

It’s late at night, but I finally have a decent internet connection! Here are some photos from our last two weeks here on Fakarava. We’re planning to depart for the nearby atoll of Toau on Thursday or Friday, and be there for at least a week. Unfortunately, we probably won’t have proper internet until we reach Papeete, in Tahiti, so this will be the last photos for a bit. I really hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them!

Wishing you well, wherever you are, Michelle

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The Dangerous Archipelago

Holy healthy coral reef, Batman! As a student of marine biology, and a nearly lifelong lover of the ocean, I’ve spent the past two mornings in awe. Literally. Yesterday, Mark and I woke just after sunrise, had our coffee and then loaded up the dinghy with snorkel gear and camera for our first drift snorkel through an atoll pass. Today, with slack high water being 45 minutes later, we did the same thing, but had breakfast first. The experience was truly mind-boggling for both of us, and we’re going back for more tomorrow! But first, let me backtrack a bit, and tell you where we are…

The first European sailors to record their sighting of one, or more, of the low, palm covered “islands” of the Tuamotus were the Spaniards. Magellan is said to have sighted Puka Puka in the far northeast of the archipelago in 1520, although he missed the rest of French Polynesia entirely. This report aside, history credits the Spaniard Quiros, and the Dutch mariners Le Maire and Schouten with the archipelago’s “discovery” in 1605 and 1616 respectively. Dubbed “the dangerous archipelago” because of the strong currents and hidden reefs, the Tuamotu Archipelago was largely avoided by European captains until well in to the 19th century. Even cruising sailors such as ourselves bypassed this region until just 20, or so, years ago. Today, modern technology such as GPS and accurate electronic charts, combined with prudent seamanship and keeping a sharp lookout, has made it possible for us to safely navigate these waters, and the reward has been more than worth the effort.

After testing our “eyeball navigation” skills in the north part of Fakarava’s marked channel and our anchoring technique among large coral heads at the Tonae anchorage, we set out for the south end of Fakarava early Sunday morning. Our friends had advised us that we should arrive in the anchorage no later than 1 p.m., so we’d have good light and be able to clearly see the reefs and coral heads around which we needed to maneuver, and it was a really good call. Just after noon, we turned off the main channel, and followed a series of GPS waypoints that have been handed down through the cruising community leading us between two reefs and into one of the most stunning anchorages either of us has ever seen. Seriously. We just keep looking at each other and laughing, because it’s such a picture postcard scene. Imagine, we’re anchored in liquid turquoise water, looking at a few small, pink sand “motus” covered with palm trees to the south of us. The water brightens to neon turquoise
near shore in the shallows, and from the motus out to the southwest, we can see (and hear!) a long line of breakers, where the ever-present southerly swell hits the reef that forms the west side of this atoll. To the north, we see only water, as Fakarava’s lagoon stretches some 30 nm in that direction. Immediately to the east of our anchorage is the atoll’s south pass, and the small village of Tetamanu. It’s really a beautiful spot, and we’re thinking we might stay here for a week, or so.

So back to the snorkeling… We’d read and been told that the visibility in the pass, a few hours after the incoming current started, would be incredible, but there’s just no describing it beforehand. It was a long dinghy ride from our anchorage to the pass, picking our way around a shallow reef and into the flooding current. The idea is to drop into the current at the upstream end of the pass, and hold on to lines attached to the dinghy as you float along the reef margin at the edge of the pass. On the first day, Mark went in first, and came up shouting “Holy Cow! This is unbelievable!”, which, of course, got me in the water in a hurry. Suddenly, we were drifting over the healthiest coral reef either of us has ever seen, in crystal clear water! Immediately below us was a bright yellow school of bluestripe snappers, while at eye level, just below the water surface, were dozens of bright blue needlefish. Within minutes I saw one of the fish I’d most wanted to see here in the South Pacific, an enormous Humphead, or Napoleon, wrasse!! If you don’t know this fish, look it up. Wrasses are normally smallish reef fish, but this guy was 3-4 feet long, and must have weighed 100 pounds or more. It was curious and approached us quite closely, and by the end of the day we’d seen 6 different individuals, plus I got some fine photos! As we drifted slowly in the first part of the current, we saw schools of onespot snappers huddled under the pilings of a small wharf, as well as a broad assortment of colorful fishes foraging on the reef crest. Further on, we spotted blacktip reef sharks cruising between the reef crest and the canyon below. At one point, we drifted over dozens(!) of gray, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, snouts pointed into the current about 50 feet below us. This is the point where I have to remind you that sharks are a sign of a healthy reef, and we were really glad to see them, even if it was a little unnerving on the first pass… At this point, we were spit into the strongest current, and we simply stretched out and literally “flew” over the reef crest. For me, this was nearly excruciating, as I wanted to stop and mentally catalog every new species that I saw! We were moving too fast, though, and I had to just enjoy the ride. As we reached the far end of the best snorkeling, where one of our new acquaintance’s boats is anchored, we hopped in the dinghy and went back for another run. This time the current was a bit slower, so we were able to pick out a few more species of reef fish. I really can’t wait to share the photos!

This morning, we picked up a friend from another boat, and went to the pass again. This time, we were more experienced and definitely less nervous around the sharks, which made it even more incredible. On our first run, Mark got me to turn around just as the giant Napolean wrasse was approaching my fins. Wow! The activity on the reef is just too much to take in all at once! This time, I spent a lot of time looking up onto the shallow reef crest, watching the surgeonfish, butterflyfish and smaller damsels graze on the algae and invertebrate “turf”. The water there was just deep enough for the blacktips to cruise up on the crest, and it was funny to watch the smaller fish react. We saw squirrelfish huddled under the ledges, bright blue neon damsels schooling around the coral heads, the occasional marbled grouper, brightly colored terminal phase bird wrasses as well as their smaller, more drab initial phase (look these guys up too, they are hilarious looking!) and loads of parrotfish commuting along the reef face. One of my favorites was the Titan triggerfish, although our field guide says that nesting females may attack divers! Once we reached the fast current, just to the east of the pass, we took turns minding the dinghy while the other free-dove down about 15 feet, and literally “flew” just above the reef, kicking hard to accelerate and having more fun than “grown-ups” are supposed to! We came back to Cheers around noon, all smiles and feeling ridiculously grateful for the opportunity to see and experience this place.

Lest you think it’s all fun and games out here, we’ve still been doing our chores, and have had a couple of minor “issues” aboard Cheers. We’ve spent the last 3 afternoons going through the electrical system to try and figure out why our battery bank suddenly lost voltage. Mark replaced an inadequate breaker for our nav computer power lead, discovered a short in the switch on one of our bilge pumps (definitely not good and will be replaced tomorrow), and found some cables that appeared to have come loose during our passages. After assessing each battery individually and determining that they’re in good shape, and after a full 24 hours with no voltage drop, we’re pretty sure that he found and fixed the problem. This afternoon, we’re charging the batteries to full capacity, so we can reset the battery monitor with reasonable confidence that it will accurately reflect the status of the batteries. There’s always something to learn out here, and we’ve just been reminded that the batteries have a shorter lifespan in this tropical heat, as well as need more attention than we’ve given them in temperate climes. So it goes…

We’re planning to do an easy dive tomorrow, along with our pass snorkel and then dive the pass with some friends the day after. More later, and definitely some photos when we can get an internet connection!

Sending best wishes your way, and hoping all is well in your world, Michelle

Small “World”

In the realm of boats and expedition travel, it’s not really that uncommon to encounter friends, colleagues or past guests in an unexpected corner of the world. Such meetings are almost always surprising, but I’ve learned to take these “small world” encounters more, or less, in stride. However, this past week, we had one of these experiences that was such a treat, and completely over the top, when we met some friends inside the atoll of Fakarava, in the Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia! We’d been in touch, so it wasn’t a surprise, but the opportunity to see friends that we hadn’t seen in a long time was fabulous. We were able to spend a good part of the day with Tim and Linnea, in between their work duties as Expedition Staff aboard the cruise ship The World. After their radio call, we took the dinghy to shore to greet them and a few other friends from the expedition world, and were then able to steal Linnea away for a quick visit aboard Cheers! We had a great time catch
ing up and showing off our home, before returning to shore and going aboard the big ship for a very full afternoon. It was so surreal to be aboard such a large and luxurious ship, after our months at sea aboard Cheers, but a great opportunity to see good friends. Plus, as an added bonus, one of their team members brought us our new masthead light!

That evening, the wind came up a bit, making our anchorage off the village of Rotoava a little lumpy, so we decided to head south inside the lagoon, in search of a better spot. After a quick trip to town for a few essentials (must. have. fresh. baguette…), we heaved the anchor and picked our way around a few coral heads to get to the marked channel. Unfortunately, the same southeasterly winds that came up in the night made our passage south pretty slow and sloppy, as we motored into 18-25 knots on the nose. It took us nearly 4 hours to go just 13 nm, but we were able to charge the batteries completely, and ran the watermaker until we were full to capacity. These days, we try hard to be strategic with our diesel consumption, making sure we’re taking full advantage of the engine running to charge all our electric appliances (laptops, iPods, electric toothbrush, etc.), and MAKE WATER! The good news is, after our slog south, we arrived at a gorgeous remote anchorage, on the wes
t side of the long motu (sandy island) that forms the east side of the atoll. We’ve been alone here for 2 days now, and have really enjoyed the peace and solitude.

The scene around us is stunning, with a white sand beach covered in swaying palm trees, bordering the electric turquoise colored water of the shallows. We’ve snorkeled a few times, and, while we haven’t seen masses of fish, we’ve seen a number of new species and the water temperature is heavenly! We’ve taken the opportunity to clean the algae off the hull, and have finally caught up on sleep after our passage. We’re planning to continue south tomorrow, for our first real “eyeball” navigation in the less charted reaches of the lagoon, and hopefully an opportunity to catch up with one of the boats we’ve just “met” by radio. We’re taking lots of photos, but it seems like it will be a while before we have internet and can upload them, so, for now, it’s just text updates and position reports.

We send our very best wishes to all the mothers out there, along with our hopes that you have the fabulous Mother’s Day each of you deserves! ~ Michelle

Fair Winds

My Dad taught me how to sail when I was growing up in Central Texas. In essence, my maritime career began on Lake Travis which is located near Austin, Texas. My first command was a 12′ sailboat that closely resembled a small ice chest with curtain rods and a sheet for a rig to make it go. It was a bit more functional than that, but you get the picture. It was a vehicle of exploration for me. I was out sailing every day for the week that we camped there, and I loved every minute of it. The boat was a rental, but before we departed to head home my parents asked if I wanted to buy that boat. I told them, “No, I want to save my money to buy one that will go faster”. I mowed lawns and pulled weeds, and before long I was out on the lakes having a great time. Over the years the lakes began to look small to me, the winds seemed very inconsistent and I longed to sail longer distances with a stronger breeze blowing across the deck. The boats got bigger over the years, and I r
elocated to bigger bodies of water but there were still bodies of land to go around, other boats to consider, and there were days when the wind was great and other times when it was not. It was still great fun, and I have loads of great memories, made plenty of new friends and saw some beautiful places along the way.

Sailing in the South Pacific is unlike anything that Michelle and I have done before. It requires that you sail long distances over a large unbroken body of water, with very few other boats to see, much less need to avoid. During a normal passage, we’ve had to regularly adjust the sails, tweak the autopilot and hold on due to the motion caused by the waves. Our passage to the Tuamotus required very little of this, and it felt like a gift that I’d love to share with everyone that I know.

We left Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas about six days ago with a forecast of light winds, for a 542 nm passage to Fakarava. The light breeze turned out to be 8-10 knots from the southeast, which was perfect for us and provided just enough breeze to keep us moving at a good speed. For the most part, we’ve been under full sail since we departed and really haven’t had to touch the sails. The seas have been very kind to us (I’ve had more motion in some anchorages!), and we haven’t seen another soul on the water since we cleared the Marquesas. Every day we looked at each other and wondered what we did to be so lucky. For us it was a perfect passage, and we were sad to see it end.

So picture this: deep, warm, blue water as far as you can see in all directions, ten knots of breeze coming across the deck from the port side, warm air, clear skies and smooth water. You’re bound for another beautiful location, and you have no schedule. Oh, and don’t forget to have your best friend with you, aboard a fine 38 foot sailboat to take you there.

If I could bottle this up I’d send you all that you desired. I’d recommend that you order a case because we don’t get this vintage very often.

Cheers, Mark