Friday, April 11, 2014

Tuamotus - Societies: Day 2: Uneventful

Not sure what happened to the weather, but are we ever, here in the Pacific? The stationary front NOAA has been predicting for days either did not exist, or we sailed right  through it without noticing... Instead of the 20-25 knots from the east which we were anticipating, it has been blowing about 10 from the east-southeast, varying about 30° to keep us on edge. The drop in wind started last night - with some annoying boom banging and sail flogging - and is still present. We flew the spinnaker during the day, which pushed Irie forward at 4-5 knots. At the same speed we are now slowly closing in on Tahiti. No need to purposefully slow us down anymore; we plan to reach the coast at daybreak before moving on to Taina Marina. And, no need to complain in these mellow and comfortable conditions!

Other than some sail changes, mealtimes and naps, there is not much going on at sea. Oh yeah, we did catch a decent size mahi mahi (dorado) close to sunset, the cleaning up of which took some time. While the moon is getting fuller and the sky is as bright as ever, I can see the first lights of Tahiti. The hustle and bustle of Papeete, French Polynesia's capital, will soon engulf us. Mark and I plan to go crazy in the Carrefour Hypermarket (We haven't seen a big - and affordable - grocery store in 15 months), are looking forward to eating out (which we have done only once this year, right before we left Taiohae in Nuku Hiva) and plan to accomplish a few important and outstanding boat projects. We can't wait! :-)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tuamotus - Societies: Day 1 - Speedy and Salty Start

Time: 1730UTC, COG 260T, SOG 5.0kts, Distance Remaining: 123nm

It was 6am and Mark and I were up and ready to go to Tahiti in the Society Islands. But first, we had to wait and debate for two hours... Wait for the sun to get higher, so we could see enough to safely leave the coral strewn anchorage; debate whether we should go or wait yet another day for better
conditions. The weather predictions - I should really start calling them weather contradictions - were less than ideal for our 260 mile trip to Tahiti. After some contemplation and the realization that the forecast is never spot on (Hey, things might actually turn out better than we are led to believe - the front between us and our destination might dissipate or move instead of being stubbornly stationary...), we decided to lift anchor. We are out of food and have things to do in the big city!

The pass in South Fakarava can be a tricky one, especially when it has been blowing 15-20 knots out of the SE, the way the cut is faced. An outgoing current would oppose the wind and means standing waves and dangerous conditions. We knew the tide was coming in when we left and we had about 2 knots of current against us. Not a problem. Back in the ocean, the seas were big and lumpy around Fakarava. The first thing I did was have a wave crash over me while we sailed around the south part of the island. A salty start of the journey. The second thing I did, once on course, was puke over the
side of the boat. I guess I have gotten used to those slow, mellow conditions during previous passages. Back to bed I went.

We received a call on the VHF and saw some sails approach behind us. It was the Swiss born Frenchman on Ma Louloute, who we had seen the morning before in the lagoon of Fakarava and who was practicing and testing some things on his small Hobie Cat-like boat near us in the afternoon. We chatted with him on the radio a bit and hope to meet up again in Papeete, Tahiti's capital. He is on his way around the world in an open 20 foot catamaran, trying to set the record as "smallest boat to sail around the world" and "first sailboat to do so without a cabin". I'm sure if you google this boat, you
will come up with some interesting facts. I forgot his name, though. He passed Irie at 12-14 knots, twice the speed we were doing!

After that entertaining talk, I stared at the horizon for the rest of the day. The wind blew 15-20 knots from the ESE (behind us), the waves were about 7-10 feet and Irie sped along at 6-7 knots, pretty much on course. She was doing OK, despite getting hit by a shark the evening prior. One of our
grey pets bumped against a rudder when fighting for a piece of chicken skin that ended overboard. Ouch!

At night the conditions mellowed down a bit and our progress slowed to around 5 knots. We expect the trip to take about 48 hours, but we might have to slow down once we approach Tahiti as to avoid going through the surrounding reefs at night. By the time we arrive in the Taina Marina area, Ma Louloute will have beaten us by 24 hours!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

South Fakarava - A Highlight in the Tuamotus?

People told us that in the month of April, the weather in the Tuamotus would improve. People also told us that the south part of Fakarava is very nice and a must-see in this archipelago. People were right on both accounts! The weather has been perfect the last week and a bit: sunny skies, and a constant breeze of about 15 knots out of the east. And south Fakarava? It is a wonderful and beautiful place to be and every morning I wake up and I look outside, a smile as bright as the sunlight appears and I am eager to start the day… Let us be reminded how great it can be to live on a sailboat in the South Pacific!

Some of the motus on our horizon

We left the remote eastern anchorage of the atoll a few days ago and had a fun and fast sail over to the south part. Irie flew on a beam reach in the flat lagoon water and arrived on the southern end around noon, a perfect time to see all the coral heads scattered around the anchorage SW of the pass. With some concentrated conning, we found a place amongst the dark spots, two connected floats keeping the chain above the coral head closest to Irie, our anchor set well in white sand 16 feet underneath. The water is crystal clear, seven black tip reef sharks constantly circle the boat and the view to shore consists of a string of palm fringed motus with sandy beaches – the first ones we have seen in the Tuamotus. Exploring the waters around them by dinghy makes for fun excursions. Jumping in the water for a shower is always an exciting event.

Part of our resident family of sharks

The main reason people visit this part of Fakarava is to dive or snorkel the pass, where hundreds of sharks reside: white tips, black tips and greys. The visibility is reported to reach 100 feet at times and when we floated by, the abyss and groups of divers were spotted at least 70 feet underneath. It is an eerie and thrilling feeling to see the coral wall go down so deep, where fish turn into little specks and where “tiny” sharks rest on the bottom with their fins spread wide. Everything at those depths looks dull and dark from above and the amount and distance of the sharks we encountered was not exciting enough for me, except, when one approached Mark from behind while he was towing the dinghy. His reaction when I pointed out the grey animal near his feet was classic!

Keep a close eye out!

When we approached the shallower area near shore (where a dive shop and resort are located), it became very interesting. The fish were colorful and abundant, the reefs vibrant and the increased shark population moved about at eye level! Mark stayed at a respectable distance, but how cool it is to snorkel alongside these mellow but vicious looking creatures! For the sake of a picture and a movie, or even without those excuses, it is worth the thrill to swim amongst their midst and I didn’t know where to look first. A place to come back again and again. Even when you wade around in the sandy shallows, the sharks keep you company as if you were their best friend. Families with kids – locals and tourists – don their masks and fins and observe these sharks in their beautiful and natural surroundings.  How many North American parents reading this are raising their eyebrows at this very moment? J

Sharks of the deep blue

And of the not so deep blue

Now, we’re talking!

Don’t wiggle your toes, Mark…

Mark and I are very happy to have come to this place and to finally enjoy ourselves a bit. The location and the atmosphere are inducing to do boat projects and the schedule “work in the morning and play in the afternoon” suits us well. To us, cruising really is “living and working on your boat in exotic places” and for now, while being in a comfortable place, we don’t mind it at all!

Church of the small village of Tetamanu

Abandoned house from the time Tetamanu was the capital of the Tuamotus

Idyllic setting for a resort

Bridge to part of the resort

Turtle in Fakarava’s South pass – at least 50 feet down

Back to our area – motu land!

Clearer water than in the San Blas

Paradise found?

Visiting the motus and their sand banks

Time for our honeymoon… Can we pretend to be rich and stay here?

White tip reef shark

Snorkeling in south Fakarava is gorgeous

Another shark encounter…

(Our excuses for the granular pictures. Blogs are posted via email over crappy 2G connections)

Monday, March 31, 2014

Eastern Fakarava in the Tuamotus

Whether in the Pacific or in the Caribbean, sailing eastward is never a good idea. It is the direction from where the trade winds usually blow and going that way requires some determination and having to tack (repeatedly sailing “up and down” close to the wind), at least doubling the distance to your destination. We know this, of course. But, instead of arriving from the Marquesas somewhere in the middle of the Tuamotus and then easily making our way west with the wind behind us, like most of the smart cruisers, we opted to start in Apataki, in the western part of the archipelago, to make our way east in small jumps. The reason: we wanted to get hauled out and paint Irie’s bottom in March (still cyclone season) before exploring the motus, and, we figured the distances between islands was short enough to cover while tacking or while being close hauled. What we didn’t think of were the restricted times we could enter the passes into the lagoons (around slack tide) and the western setting current.

6am: sunrise in Anse Amyot – time to go

Moving from Anse Amyot to the north side of Fakarava, we ran into these two problems. Slack tide guestimated to be around 2pm, we could not sail the distance between the two atolls while tacking up and down and arrive in daylight. Instead, we left at 6am and motored around the long NW-SE orientated side of Toau until we hoped to sail 4 hours later. Sails trimmed tight, the wind accommodated us and pushed us towards the north pass of Fakarava. But, we were doing less than 4 knots, a speed at which we would not make the lagoon entrance in time. The current was against us at more than 1 knot! Having to motor while you can actually sail the direction you want to go, really blows… We postponed that dreadful action until the last moment, and lucked out. The westerly setting current stayed the same, but the wind speed picked up a couple of knots, and so did we!

Anchorage off Rotoava – coral is visible in the shallower water

Slack tide seemed to have passed by the time we entered north Fakarava, but the entrance was calm, short and straightforward; going slow didn’t bug us. Then, we had to motor east for an hour and a half, before we arrived at the village, Rotoava, where a few boats were moored and anchored. For an hour, we dropped anchor, dragged anchor and picked up anchor, our chain being molested by big coral heads we couldn’t see because of the depth (40 feet) and the poor water clarity. Other people do not seem to mind not knowing whether their anchor is set in sand or hooked on a coral head. We do, and knowing that the anchorage existed of massive “bommies” (coral heads) did not put our minds at ease. After four tries, we felt relatively comfortable leaving the boat alone when we went grocery shopping. The cargo ship Cobia 3 had just arrived, so the next morning, we splurged on frozen chicken and some fresh veggies: eggplants and lettuce! But no cabbage, cucumber or tomatoes, let alone things we haven’t had for over a year, like broccoli or zucchini. Rotoava also has a bakery, so fresh baguettes were in order.

The village of Rotoava seen from Irie’s deck

The weather turned again after one nice day

Shopping taken care of, we needed to catch up on a lot of emails, research and other internet related business. The signal of IoraSpot (the provider we bought a lot of hours from in the Gambier to use “all over” French Polynesia) was weak and unreliable once again, so – much to our annoyance and frustration – we gave up on most chores and postponed them once again. We sure hope there will be decent internet in Tahiti and the Society Islands! We haven’t been able to Skype call anyone successfully in more than a year. Yes, these islands are supposed to be pretty much first world, or at least related to that proud European country… Prices for merchandise sure resemble this, but unfortunately, good internet is non-existent, even at many dollars an hour!

Sunset over Fakarava’s lagoon

Church in Rotoava

Since there was not much more to do for us in Rotoava and since we had been bouncing around at anchor due to an unexplainable side chop for three nights, we left the northeast part of Fakarava to sail down along the eastern edge of the lagoon. This is the second biggest atoll in the Tuamotus (after Rangiroa) and moving from the north end to the south with a slow sailboat takes all day. We decided to stop somewhere in the middle of the route along the well-marked and obstacle-free channel.

Sailing along the eastern edge of the lagoon

A pleasant three hour sail over flat lake-like water brought us to a beautiful spot close to a palm-fringed motu. This time, we could see all the coral heads (deep enough for Irie to clear) and we picked a sandy area amongst them to drop our anchor in 16 feet. If and when the chain wrapped around these isolated reefs, we would be able to see what was going on. Here, we finally relaxed a bit and focused on some smaller projects on board, while enjoying our solitude and attractive surroundings.

A comfortable and peaceful spot for a couple of nights

A nice view to cherish again!

Multitude of birds fishing near Irie

Friday, March 28, 2014

Anse Amyot in the Toau Atoll

The things we do for internet! In the Caribbean we would move anchorages and make sure there is WiFi before we would stay a bit, but here, WiFi being VERY rare if not non-existent, it works differently… On Fridays, the post office in the village of Apataki is only open from 7:30 to 9:30 am. And, the post office is the only place where one can buy phone cards (“Vini cards”), which Mark and I use to get on the slow and unreliable 2G network. Even though it works poorer than in the remote Kuna Indians territory of the San Blas islands (believe it or not!), it is our only option of staying connected out here. We pay about $5 for 100Mb and depending on our location and the quality of the signal, this will last us two weeks or 2 days!

On this particular Friday with light winds, we left the boatyard area at 6am to slowly sail directly downwind to the village. We had to go east (to leave the lagoon) to go west. Within half a mile of the dock, before reaching the pass, we dropped the dinghy in relatively choppy waters and I quickly jumped in and drove to town to buy a few phone cards and highly needed supplies. Only, the store was closed, a frequent occurrence, so – for the first time ever – we relied mostly on cans for food the following week. Once the dinghy was strapped back on and the boat ready for another sail, we crossed the SW pass at slack tide and entered the ocean, while locals were wishing us “bon voyage”.

Based on weather reports it was supposed to be a comfortable, easy, 3 hour sail, in 10-15 knots of NE winds - upwind in one tack - to reach Anse Amyot in Toau. Sails up and engines off, we pointed Irie’s bow to our destination, only to find out that this was definitely not going to work! The wind came from the SE, the exact direction of where we needed to go. What followed was a seven hour sail tacking back and forth (all the way to the back or ocean side of the boatyard!), covering another 50 miles, instead of the required 17. The weather was lovely, the wind speed perfect and the sea conditions comfortable, but, at the end, we still needed to motor for an hour to make the mooring field before dark.

Anse Amyot has a very easy approach, with no pass or currents to worry about. You have the option of picking up one of the dozen or so mooring balls for about $7 a night (or acceptable and favored goods by the owners of the balls) or for free if you eat a meal ashore when their restaurant is open, or of anchoring between the coral heads. Since we have decided to go for “easy” wherever possible in the Tuamotus, we grabbed a mooring ball, which, because the wind died the next two days, took off some of our fresh paint immediately and kept going bang bang bang against the pristine blue hull. Still better than being surrounded and splattered by an oil slick like the previous two times after we put antifouling on, though! The flies were horrendous until the wind picked up again.

Irie on a mooring ball in the reef strewn waters

During the calm days, the sea was flat and of the clearest blue. The water of the lagoon so azure that the underside of the wings of white birds appeared to be blue from the reflection! Snorkeling was amazing, with healthy corals – whole “forests” of it - and a multitude of colorful fish; the occasional reef shark sneaking by, big groupers strolling about and sucking remora’s favoring Irie’s bottom. When the weather turned nasty again, the place was well protected and comfortable enough to sleep at night. The fresh breeze filled our boat batteries; the rain our fresh water tank.

Coral gardens

Over the weekend, the owners of the mooring field (Valentine and Gaston) and their neighbors (four people in total living on this motu) left to go vote in Fakarava, one of the biggest atolls in the Tuamotus. Mark and I cooked meals for the dogs and split coconuts with an axe to feed the pigs. We made sure all the animals had enough to eat and, on the hottest day, took an extra trip ashore to “shower” the panting pigs and piglets with rainwater from the barrel. It felt great to take care of the property and the animals and it made us long for a simple life ashore.

Mark splitting matured coconuts near the pig pen

Once the weather clears up and the wind has a northern twitch to it (in the forecasts anyway), we will try to reach Fakarava, about 45 miles from here and hopefully no more than a day sail away. There, based on written and personal reports, a few stores, “decent” internet and world class snorkeling await us. It is one of the highlights in the Tuamotus and we hope to spend a decent amount of time there.

Greeting Rocky on the dock of Valentine and Gaston

Fish abound in the Pacific!

Healthy coral is easier to find than in Caribbean waters

Group of Remora’s living with and under Irie

Pigs and piglets love coconuts (or don’t know of any other food)

One of Gaston’s fish farms

The resident dogs of Anse Amyot awaiting our arrival

Going for a walk with the dogs in the palm rich interior, on the sharp coral ground – we haven’t seen any sand in the Tuamotus yet!