Monday, March 3, 2014

The Wrong Atoll at the Wrong Time

Mark and I seem to be on a streak of bad luck with the weather these days. During our five day crossing from the Marquesas, we barely had enough wind to get here (the reason: a suddenly popped up weather system not too far away) and now, well… you’ll have to read on.

Arriving in the Tuamotus

The last day of February, the wind slowed us down enough to arrive in Apataki close to slack tide. Once we found the cut into the lagoon, entering the SW pass was easy. The “Current Guestimator” was pretty accurate. The tranquil setting of the pearl farms, the abundance of palm trees, the clearest water we have seen since Bonaire, and a few people greeted us. A supply ship had just left the village dock, where we planned to tie up and stay one or two days to rest up a bit and do some internet and shopping. We lucked out on that part: space at the dock and delivery of fresh, expensive food. Internet? That’s always a problem. So, please, bear with us when the layout or the pictures on the blog are a bit crappy.

Motoring through the SW pass in Apataki

The people of Apataki are extremely friendly and we are greeted everywhere and handed food, fresh produce and fish based on who we meet and where. The ripe bananas we had left were given in return. The initial relief and happiness to be in the Tuamotus was tempered a bit by life at the dock. We have not tied up to anything in years and now we remember why. The cost is not an issue here, since being at the village quay is free, but the dock is filthy, the big black bumpers leave nasty marks on Irie’s hull, the lines and fenders need attention because of the tides, we have zero privacy, there is the threat of rats boarding and the mosquitoes are a pest. The constant noise of the village generator, right next to the boat, makes talking difficult.

Irie at the village quay – it looks pretty enough :-)

The first night we were here, we barely slept because of some of these reasons. The locals hung out next to our cockpit, until 11pm, once in a while interrupting us for conversation. At 5am, fishermen were surrounding us on the dock and were swimming under the boat, banging there flippers and floats onto the hull. Good morning! We really wanted some peace, some beautiful surroundings, and were sick of the dock life already after one day (which was an enjoyable day nevertheless), so we decided to leave for an uninhabited motu on the south side of the lagoon for two days of beauty and relaxation. Bad idea.

The water is like an aquarium, with fish eating the algae we already collected during our last sail

We knew there was wind predicted from the north (usually there are east winds here), which meant no protection (these atolls are big!), but it was only supposed to blow 5 knots and once it would get worse (there would be some crappy weather later on, because of the same system), we would go to the boat yard – the reason for us being in Apataki. That was the plan. Based on our experiences in the ocean, light winds were super light winds and squalls did not have any wind in them. We thought we would be fine. We should have known better.

It was extremely cloudy, but we lucked out with a sunny period, right at around slack tide, which allowed us to leave the dock, enter the lagoon and motor the 7 miles to motu Ruavahine. Surrounded by squalls, we dropped our anchor in 16 feet of amazingly clear water accentuated by the last rays of sun above us, and settled in with our butt towards the beach. It was beautiful here and I couldn’t wait to snorkel on the reefs behind us, an activity we hadn’t done in over seven months! Yes, that’s how long we were in the murky waters of the Marquesas… As soon as we had finished lunch, however, we were in trouble.

Ruavahine surrounded by squalls

First, the wind shifted 180°, coming from the south and putting Irie in 52 feet, towards the depths of the lagoon. Safer than in front of land, but we did not have enough anchor chain out for this change in depth and couldn’t let out more, because once we would turn back, we would hit the reefs with a longer rode. Sitting at the shortest scope ever (an unsettling 2:1, instead of our usual 5:1), we sat tight and held our breath when the first of many squalls needed an hour to pass. Not sure what to do – there are no good options for anchorages in Apataki – and it becoming later and later, we watched the instruments. Slowly, the wind turned back north and the depth decreased. The predicted north wind was back. And… picked up. With a 5 mile fetch, the waves quickly built and Irie started to pitch up and down. Not liking the idea of being on a lee shore (butt towards land) in bad weather, we felt like we could just manage the uncomfortableness. Then, the wind turned to the northwest and the distance of the land in front of us was 20 miles! That is a long way for the waves to grow before they reached us! Did I mention yet that these lagoons are big? A bad scene indeed. 

Not much later, the anchorage became a nightmare. One squall after another passed, with winds of 25 knots in it. Irie wildly jumping up and down, 3 foot waves smashing against the hulls and hitting the bridge deck, everything was tossed around and the place became untenable. But, we were stuck and had to sit it out. Needless to say, we did not sleep a bit last night as well. It had been calmer out on the ocean and the movements of the boat were comparable to sailing upwind in choppy seas. It was a very stressful and dangerous situation and we also figured out they would not be able to haul Irie out of the water in these conditions. It was by far the most uncomfortable anchorage we have been visited in seven years and the most dreadful day and night. Mark would probably agree if I say that it was his most awful birthday ever as well…

So, now we are back at the village quay, with our fishermen friends, the generator as background noise, and the mosquitoes as company. We will wait here until this system passes. It is raining hard and the wind has pinned us down against the dock, so we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to. But, it can always get worse! At least we and the boat are safe and it is flat calm – the boat has not been so stable in many many months. We are alive and comfortable. What more do we need?

There is the SW pass!

Celebrating our arrival in the Tuamotus

Our friend Irwin in the boat basin, with engine trouble

This picture is taken above the water, and – yes – the ray and fish are in the water!

Going for a swim off the village on the day of our arrival

Church of Apataki village

Mark is cleaning the fish, given to us by the fisherman next to him

Sunset over the SW pass in Apataki

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