We can now return home happy. After the past month of floating around the beautiful Tuamotus, everything else that awaits us in the Pacific can only be a bonus. If we didn’t have a visa overstay issue - I’m officially an illegal immigrant with my passport confiscated, fingerprints and mug shots taken – we would stay here in French Polynesia for longer (read ever). In fact most of the cruisers we’ve met here have done exactly that, come for a season after sailing the world, and then never left.
Nick of course has no such trouble with his French passport. But I have to say there couldn’t possibly be friendlier custom police in the world … the above all transpired with a genuine Polynesian smile and a ‘don’t worry, this happens all the time, how much longer do you need to stay to get your boat ready to leave? Would another month or two do? Penalty? No, there’s no penalty. Of course you’re welcome back!’. Maybe Australia’s handling of boat people could take a leaf?...
But back to the Tuamotus. They were just amazing. And we only explored a handful of the 76 coral ring atolls. Compared to the Society Islands with their spectacular lush volcanic peaks and soil so fertile every inch is dripping with tropical greenery, life in the Tuamotus is found mostly underwater. On display down below are the most amazing gardens of corals, ridiculously colourful reef fish, an endless supply of good sized delicious spear fishing targets, and sharks, sharks, and oh so many more sharks. And all of this action takes place in the most amazingly clear water I have ever been in.
Above the water there’s really nothing more than coral beaches and coconut trees. The Tuamotus are much older than the Society Islands, and so over how ever many thousands of years their volcanic peaks have sunk back into the lagoons, and all that’s left now are the surrounding rings of barrier reef rising around 1-2m above sea level. Without any sizable body of land for protection from winds, this can leave you relatively exposed at anchorage to the elements if (inevitably when) conditions change. We discovered this pretty early on.
After catching up on sleep after our three day crossing and relaxing in the beautiful South Pass of Fakarava, our weather forecasting showed that in a few days the wind was due to swing into the north and then around to the squally west before heading back into the regular south east trade pattern. So we got busy enjoying ourselves while the weather was calm and the lagoon was glassy. We had a ball in our new playground freediving in the pass amongst the sharks and lazing on secluded pink sand beaches under palm trees. Having a handle on the systems here now (very helpful) we knew that we would only have to endure the unpleasant north and westerly winds for a day before we’d be once again protected from the trades. So we, and around 15 other boats all stayed put.
The fun started just after dark as the wind went north. Nothing overly strong, but after an hour or so it had whipped up some nice choppy waves down the length of the large lagoon that we were now riding up and down like a bucking bull. Uncomfortable - yes, sleeping - not really, but nothing overly dangerous. Sometime in the early hours of the morning the wind turned west. Which then meant we were side on to the waves that keep coming down the lagoon. Oh, and of course it was raining heavily. Uncomfortable – oh so much, sleeping - out of the question, but still not all that dangerous aside from unsecured objects flying across the cabin as we pretty much rocked like a upbeat pendulum from toe rail to toe rail. The only comfort was looking out through the rain at everyone else’s masts (not one person in the anchorage was sleeping) rocking around just as much, if not more than ours.
Thankfully in the morning the trades arrived and the waves subsided and all was well. Aside from one of our two mooring lines that had started to mildly chafe through. You can see how easily things can go wrong when those kind of conditions persist, and how so many boats end up on the reef with mooring lines breaking. But we were fine. Nothing a nap couldn’t fix.
After a few more days of exploring our underwater playground and getting more comfortable swimming with hundreds (no joke) of sharks, we ventured up the lagoon for a new slice of paradise. We found a beautiful sandy beach to ourselves with plenty of loaded coconut trees bending over beautiful turquoise water and a maze of coral bombies to explore. Nick speared our first parrot fish which we were pretty darn excited about. Spearfishing had been out of the question at the south pass with the locals saying you had less than 10sec to get your fish out of the water before it would be stolen by frisky sharks. So to celebrate our catch we thought there nothing better to do than bake it over a coconut husk fire on the beach. It was just us, the brightest shooting stars you’ve ever seen, and a white beach of moving shells as hermit crabs of all sizes came out to play.
Two weeks easily flew by in Fakarava as we sailed up and down the lagoon in search of more of the above. The only thing missing was waves. The conditions weren’t quite right for the south pass and a mission to another atoll with an iconic wave ended fruitlessly with the swell and wind directions not coming together. But I’m glad to say we did finally manage to successfully interpret the charts, wind and swell forecasts and score. We of course won’t mention the exact location, but it was a perfect barreling left with no one else out. Nick summed it up with there’s ‘no need to surf again on this trip after that’.
After a few days of perfection it was time to negotiate leaving the smallest marina ever (we were moored in a space cut out of coral no bigger than two Olympic swimming pools – this might give a few of you a clue as to where we were) and address something a little less fun. We’d discovered that our rudder had a little too much play as we could feel an increasing shudder through the wheel and our autopilot was working hard to overcompensate. After asking a few other sailors with far more experience than us (thanks those of you that offered advice), speaking to the old owner Eric, and convincing the ever helpful Matthieu of Pakokota Yacht Services to dive under and help assess the excess movement, we decided that with Aputaki Carinage not far away we should bit the bullet and get it fixed. Much research with slow internet revealed no parts needed, just a better seal of the bottom bearing (Eric hadn’t glued it when he last replaced it). Not only were Toni and his family at the Carinage amazingly helpful and efficient (the rudder was dropped and re-glued and we were back in the water in 36 hours), but their boatyard must be the most beautiful and remote boatyard in the world. Surrounded by toothpaste coloured water, and palmtrees, it just didn’t feel like boatyard work at all.
Our time was running out as the rudder work and associated research had put us behind a little. But we were still keen to make it to the false pass of Toau before we had to head west back to Tahiti. Here there is a keyhole in the outer part of the reef that provides 270° protection, but without letting you access the inside of the lagoon. It’s basically a small little cul-de-sac of paradise where the fish are amazing. The locals use traditional fish traps here to only take what they need, leaving Nick in spearfishing heaven. Within seconds he had pulled a big silvery beauty into the dingy. Dinner (and lunch) sorted. It refueled our bellies nicely for the two day return passage.
We were excited to be finally sailing down wind (its been upwind all the way so far from Raiatea to the Tuamotus), and so were understandably disappointed when the forecasted easterlies of 15kts (perfect) turned out to be only 6-8kts. Our expected easy and fast downwind return passage turned out to be a frustrating two day motor fest, finished off with a nice drenching squall as we approached Tahiti in the wee hours of the morning. But we made it safe and sound and still managed our share of night watch dancing in the dark.
And now we’re back in busy Tahiti. One illegal immigrant, and one frustrated Frenchman. Frustrated because we’re sitting, waiting – all during a perfect weather window where we were hoping to be setting sail for Tonga - for a part to arrive from France. The ball bearings in our furler (the mechanism that curls in the headsail) are a bit too worn for our liking as at present it resembles a jamming pepper mill trying to grind gravel. Having your jib jam during a 10 day crossing doesn’t sound like the type of excitement we’re after. So we’ll just keep waiting, fixing more s#@t in paradise. And eventually I’ll recollect my passport so we can venture off to our next port of call… the Kingdom of Tonga.