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


Ron mayo said...

Yet another excellent post! Thanks so much for sharing your adventure as my partner and I are about 5 years behind you two.

May I ask how you 'unwind' your chain from coral heads that are so deep that you cannot see them clearly? I've always wondered about that since my anchoring experience is limited to the pacific north west.

Liesbet said...

Thanks, Ron!

Are you two in the Caribbean right now? Definitely stop in the San Blas for a bit on your way west! Much less challenging than the Pacific and - so far - as beautiful and interesting! :-)

We hate to anchor amongst coral heads, especially if we can't see them, which happened a couple of times while being in the Tuamotus (northwest Apataki and north Fakarava). There's nothing like the grating of the chain at night, without knowing how things look like "down there".

To pick up our chain we go and act REALLY slow and never put any stress on the windlass. Mark is on the bow and tells me with hand signals where to go. If the chain is stuck, he lets out more slack and we maneuver as well as we can to pick it up. So far, this worked (and also in places in the Bahamas and Marquesas). Our French neighbor in Apataki, who couldn't care less, I guess, broke his windlass when picking up the chain of his massive catamaran. He just left to Tahiti to buy a new one. I guess this is another way to do it...

Many people who come to the Tuamotus are divers and have their own gear on board. They can go in the water to entangle the chain or instruct the crew if necessary. We don't dive, but can do the same with snorkel gear up to a depth of about 20 feet. At that depth, you can see the bottom here, though. Many anchorages here are deeper, so care has to be taken.

I hope this helps.

Happy sailing and enjoying comfortable anchorages! :-)