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 remoras 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 Remoras 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!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Apataki Carenage - Bottom Paint Renewal

Information about Apataki Carenage, or Apataki’s boatyard, is given in my previous blog, so to learn more about this remote “enterprise in paradise” and what a haulout there entails, read the story underneath. Another thing we have been asked is: ”Why did you paint the bottom of Irie already again?” That is a good point…

After we hauled out at Shelter Bay Marina in December 2012, the idea was that we could keep Irie in the water for two years straight, so we did not have to worry about hauling out in the remote and inconvenient South Pacific, French Polynesia in particular, until we reached Fiji. We fixed what needed to get fixed, improved a few things and decided to paint the bottom again for this purpose. We ordered three gallons of our usual and effective antifouling of choice: Islands 44 of the brand Sea Hawk. We had applied the same hard ablative paint twice before and were happy with the results, unlike with the two other brands we used prior to that. Bottom paint is one of those big subjects cruisers have questions about and where compromises have to be made.

Being in Panama and knowing how things are run (or not run) there, we ordered the paint with Arturo months ahead of time and checked to make sure it had arrived at Marine Warehouse in Panama City, before we needed it. When haulout time approached, we obtained two of the three cans while in Portobelo, the other one (which Arturo forgot the first time) we received a week later, while Irie was on the hard. Already glad that the necessary paint was in our possession before we were paying big money to be in the boatyard, we checked the dates of the rusty containers… only to discover that they were well expired. Of course, Arturo did not have any other Islands 44 around nor could he (or would he, “This paint is all right!”) order new tins before our scheduled haulout, so we reluctantly put $1000 worth of expired paint on Irie’s bottom, not having an alternative.

Already four months later, in the rich waters of the Galapagos Islands our trouble began, when the paint at the waterline started to disappear. A few times we scrubbed that area clean of growth, and once, right before the long trip to French Polynesia, we lightly wiped the rest of the bottom, turning it blue again from being mossy green.  In the Gambier Islands, more paint was gone and we needed to clean the waterline every other week. In the Marquesas, the problem became worse. The water was very “dirty” with organisms, algae growing non-stop, and even barnacles appeared. Because of the constant chop of uncomfortable anchorages, the scum line reached well above the waterline. About once a week, we needed to dive in and scrape and clean Irie’s bottom. Not the most fun tasks of living aboard, those seven months we were there.

Needless to say, we wanted to repaint the bottom as soon as we could and that happened at the boatyard in Apataki. By then ALL the paint we applied in Panama was gone, and then some. We emailed Pauline of Apataki Carenage well ahead of time and ordered the antifouling paint they usually carry, namely ABC3 from Ameron. Cheaper paint and better service! We will see how this one holds up, but for now, Irie looks pretty with her new bottom and we don’t have to scrape and clean underwater anymore.

We realize that we have sailed longer distances since being in the Pacific and that every locale is different in regards to growth and paint effectiveness, but we are sure that our bad experience is mainly due to the paint being expired, which we blame on Arturo and Marine Warehouse in Panama City. So, beware of the date on your antifouling tins; check them well before you are high and dry and ready to apply!

Freshly painted Irie at rainy Shelter Bay Marina – boatyard

Not only was the bottom paint in Panama expired, but we received two different batches/colors!

Irie with her most recent bottom paint (ABC3 from Ameron)

Irie ready to be splashed, five days ago.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hauled out at Apataki Carenage - As Flat As It Gets

For a couple of days, the weather in Apataki was beautiful; the sun shining brightly in the blue sky and the waves of the lagoon lapping gently on the coral beach. Then, the wind shifted to the north again and arrived with a vengeance. The lagoon water churned up, the wind chop grew, the waves produced foam while crashing on shore and it was blowing a steady 30+ knots, with squalls bringing 40-50 knots! The big sailboats on the moorings pitched wildly. Luckily, Mark and I were safely on the blocks and stands by then, “barely” noticing the mayhem inside the atoll. The boat didn’t move at all; we were safely “anchored” on terra firma. It was actually fun to see our wind meter climb higher and higher to wind speeds it had never registered before.

A crazy lagoon in north winds, making hauling and launching a real challenge…

Two days prior, we were promised a morning haulout. By the time their machine was fixed and the boat ramp was cleared of all the coral rubble, which washes up constantly, and taking the long lunch break into account, the day had mostly passed. Initially, we were very relaxed about it, but when 2pm arrived, all the waiting around did get us a bit antsy to get going. Around 4pm, we were instructed to approach the carenage (boat yard), following a path in between coral heads, and once we were close enough to shore (too close for comfort in any other situation), lines held Irie in place, about 5 feet from the beach. The whole lifting us out of the water was a sight to behold, involving a few people, a tractor, and a trailer with soft pads supporting our bridge deck. Alfred worked the controls, son Tony was in the water inspecting and instructing, Alfred’s wife Pauline gave mental support and stood by in case of emergency or language barriers and Nini took care of all the other odds and ends. Alfred’s dad Assam was present as well.

Irie close to shore, with the trailer coming underneath

By the time we were installed on the trailer and pulled higher up the boat ramp, it was 5pm and the work day was over, so we spent the first night on the machine. Another step closer to being hauled and being able to start our projects! And, a first introduction to the massive population of mosquitoes and the hot nights, being sideways to the breeze (our hatches face forward for ventilation). The following morning, we were assigned our own working space and that is where Irie comfortably rested for about a week. Alfred put us in a “nice spot”, next to some trees which would provide shade early afternoon, so we “could keep the work up without being too hot”…

Our home for about a week

Not a bad thought, if it weren’t for a few minor inconveniences: the trees totally blocked our wind generator, so while the heavy weather brought all the electricity needed just in wind alone, we received none; being faced southeast, the breeze rarely entered the boat, so it was hot inside at all times; and just imagine what falls out of trees when it is windy... I’ll just say that we couldn’t collect any of the rain because of natural debris landing and staying on our roof, that our ant population multiplied and thrived on the dead bugs falling out of the sky and that our gecko population tripled as well. And, that mosquitoes LOVE shady areas, so they kept us company from dawn till dusk, cheerfully ignoring the mosquito spray we applied and the coils we lighted.

This Lagoon 450 catamaran was too heavy to get hauled, so they had to fix their problem on the lifted trailer in the water

All that being sad, our stay in Apataki Carenage was one of best haulout experiences we have had in seven years of sailing. And believe me, we have hauled out plenty of times, probably beating the record in the cruising community with an average of 1-2 shore visits a year! Do the math… The climate outside was just about perfect; none of that super-hot and sticky summer weather of the Caribbean. Of course it is beneficial to have a catamaran and work intermittently on the shady sides. The Lau family is very friendly, helpful, accommodating and professional. They have their act together, especially considering this place in the Tuamotus is fairly remote. The usual facilities of a boatyard are absent: the toilet barely works, there is no shower, there is no running water (so no pressurized hoses), every boat receives a big barrel of well water to use for cleaning and rinsing (it gets filled regularly), there are no trash containers (your garbage gets picked up by Nini once in a while) and there is no electricity. You can rent a generator or use your own.

Saildrives are a lot of work, especially when you are meticulous about them

Apataki Carenage is truly a do-it-yourself, bring-it-yourself boatyard. Come prepared! Tony can be hired to do boat work, you are allowed to borrow some tools and they have selected marine items for sale, but it is best to ask ahead of time about particularities and order your bottom paint. They are very responsive by email, but speak limited English. Being able to communicate in French is advised and very helpful. The location is unique, with the clear water of the lagoon a few feet away and the palm trees offering sweet coconut water. Fresh eggs can be bought from grandma and the family offers taxi service to the village. 16 tons is the maximum boat weight they allow and 2 meters the maximum draft, but they are very accommodating if there are special needs. All you need to do is ask.

Rinsing the boat with cups of water – very inconvenient and time-consuming!

How did we and Irie do during our week on the hard? Well, we decided to take it easier than other times and that actually worked. We seem to have gotten more done than ever without losing our moods and being too frustrated. The lack of rain showers helped and we focused on inside and underneath projects on the crappiest day. We spread out the work over time and between us – as usual working as a “well-oiled” team - and realized that a lot can be done when your day starts at 7am and you go to bed at 8pm. More often than not, the work ended around 5pm, with a cocktail on the dock overlooking the lagoon. Yes, we managed to buy a bottle of rum from another cruising couple who left the US not so long ago. J

My favorite boat yard chore: removing the tape after painting

Irie is cleaned, scraped, sanded, washed, painted and waxed. She is stain- and scum-free and “as good as new”. The sail drives underwent the same procedure with different paint and had their seals and thru hulls replaced, and the rudders received new bushings. We were lucky to have another cruiser fix a rip in our jib (which, unfortunately needs replacing) and even managed to bake bread (there is no food on this island) and do laundry. And right now, we are back in the water, relieved about our successful haulout and our shorter project list, and … we are ready to see and enjoy some of these Tuamotus, also called “the dangerous archipelago”!

Getting “settled” close to shore before getting on the trailer

Irie getting pulled out of the water by the tractor

Being moved to “our shady spot”

Hermit crabs abound – we have never seen or avoided stepping on so many of them (especially at night)!

The “cocktail pier” during nice and mellow weather

Anaho keeping us company and being cute next to one of our rudders

Nini shoveling the coral to clear the boat ramp

As good as new and almost ready… And very pretty! J

Rudders back in place. Now we are ready to splash (launch)!

Irie getting back in the water (photo by Pauline Lau)

Good overview of the haulout facility – yes, those black spots are shallow reefs (photo by Pauline Lau)

There we go! Irie back in the water where she belongs… (Photo by Pauline Lau)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

One Step Closer to Hauling Out

The only reason Mark and I started our Tuamotu cruise in the atoll of Apataki is because they have a haul out facility here and we planned to take Irie out of the water to improve a few things under the waterline and to paint her bottom again. Yes, we did this a little over a year ago in Panama, to avoid having to do it again in French Polynesia, but the Pacific Ocean is a harsh environment for sailboat bottoms! The passages are long, taking a bit of paint off every trip, and the growth of algae and other green slime is gigantic, especially in the Marquesas. So much so, that we had to spend 1-2 hours a week cleaning the waterline and scraping Irie’s bottom, in the dark, seasick making harbors.

What we had in mind was to enter the lagoon of Apataki upon arrival, spend a few days on a mooring of the boatyard to rest and acclimatize and then get hauled in the beginning of March. It didn’t quite work out that way. For ten days, we moved to all corners of the atoll, dealing with crappy weather and uncomfortable anchorages. We learned they couldn’t haul boats in anything other than NE to SE winds – it was blowing hard from the N and NW those days - and not too strong at that. And, that they actually couldn’t haul boats at all presently, because the storms had kicked up coral on the boat ramp that needed to get cleared with the tractor, which was waiting for a replacement part.

Super crappy 6-hour motor trip from the village to the NW of Apataki

At the village dock, we had a stable, horizontal experience which didn’t last long due to weather. After a hair rising and uncomfortable six hour trip, we arrived at Apataki’s NW shore and found flat waters for a couple of days, until the wind shifted a bit to the east and we were rocking again, all the while having to listen to the chain grating over coral or rock, 55 feet down, and stressing about getting the anchor or the chain jammed in its crevices. It was too deep to see what was going on. With difficulties, we managed to retrieve our anchor, which was wrapped around two coral heads, and no damage was done. We later learned that our neighbor broke his massive windlass while trying to up anchor! The reward for last week’s hassles were some patches of reef which were incredibly colorful and teaming with fish, making them worthwhile to explore and snorkel.

Finally some colorful and healthy reefs!

It was a beautiful, sunny day when we sailed the 17 miles from the NW corner of Apataki to the boatyard on the south, traversing the lagoon. Google Earth helped us plot a course around the reefs and the visibility was great. All the conditions were perfect for a fun and relaxed sail to our destination; the only downfall being all the pearl farm buoys along the way. Having to hand steer, be on the look-out in the blazing sun for three hours, straining our eyes and avoiding floats cannot be called “relaxing”, but it was a lovely sail apart from that.

Constantly watching for pearl farm floats

Once we picked up a mooring ball in front of Apataki Carenage, we soon found out that this part of the lagoon is as choppy as ever. Irie was bouncing all over the place, making sleeping difficult. As a result, we can’t wait to get hauled out of the water, which must be a first in history! Nobody looks forward to spend a week or more on the hard, where it is humid and hot, with no breeze and with plenty of mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies. But, hey, at least the boat will stop moving for a change. Imagine not having to hold on each time you walk around your house and try to be productive… I think that is worth some extra sweating and scratching at this point!

Apataki Carenage, the “prettiest” boatyard in the world

NW shore of Apataki

One of the many giant clams

In the Tuamotus black tip and white tip sharks are abundant. This picture is taken from the beach.

Cooling off (and keeping the sharks company) after cleaning the bottom of our dinghy

Snorkel time!

Regal angelfish – so pretty…

Roundhead parrotfish (initial stage)

Moorish idol

My coral garden – a short swim away from Irie

Going for a walk near the “carenage” – the beaches are made of dead coral

Our new friend Anaho