On our last visit to the Tuamotus, we headed for Kauehi, then Fakarava and Toau before leaving for the Societies. This time, we decided to head further south to see more of these beautiful atolls. Our destination: Raroia.
We couldn’t have asked for better wind and sea conditions. The ocean swells were uncharacteristically smooth, and the wind blew with the consistency of a Dyson. This combination of benign sea state and steady wind gifted us a boat speed of 7.5 knots most of the way. We thought we were going to make it in 3 days.
Then the wind died.
By the time the wind returned, it was pointless going for speed because there was no way to make it before nightfall. Besides, getting there earlier would have meant a longer wait outside the pass to get into the atoll at dawn. Even slowing down to 3 knots meant that we had to linger outside Raroia for 6 hours in the dark. But it was calm enough in the lee of the island, and we took turns to snooze the night away while waiting for daylight and slack water.
At 0700, precisely the time predicted for slack water; we headed towards the pass. As we got closer to the entrance, it was clear that it was a bit lumpy-looking, but thought this might be normal here. As we got even closer to the pass, those lumpy waves started to look like southern-ocean bruisers. There was nothing we could to about that, apart from carrying on. Turning around ran the risk of being broadsided and knocked down.
Our speed dropped to 2 knots as we got to the narrow part of the pass, so it was clear that a lot of water was still pouring out of the atoll. On a positive note, this gave us good steerage, but it required buttock-clenching concentration to get through it. Lady Jane was being thrown around like a toy boat in a bath with a hyperactive child.
Eventually, though, as we edged further into the atoll, the sea state settled to near-flat waters. Our speed came back up, and we were able to slowly steer our way past the bommies (isolated areas of coral) across to the eastern end of the atoll where we dropped anchor in the lee of a tiny motu. We had the French fleet from the Marquesas to our north and nothing to our south.
I thought I had made a mistake with the tidal calculator: the wrong date or location, perhaps. So I rechecked, but I had made no mistake. I also checked another date for the time someone else came through without incident, and his time matched that of the tide calculator. So, something was off. But it served as an essential reminder: trust the eyeballs above the technology.
The first couple of days after a long sail always generate additional work, and that extra work leads to even more things to do.
This time the engine alarm buzzer had stopped working – it had fallen off, so I soldered it back on. And the strop holding the dinghy to the davits had broken again. Fortunately, I rigged a safety line this time. So, it was a simple case of getting the sewing machine out to make a new strop. Last time this happened, we had to patch the dinghy and get the outboard serviced, so I’ll regard this as a win. And while the sewing machine was out, I made a new fastener for Maria’s hat and repaired the Ocean Cruising Club burgee that was looking decidedly battered.
So much for sipping Pina Coladas while gently lolling about in a hammock on a tropical beach. And if we did get the hammock out, it would probably need restitching.
The weather forecast for Sunday 20th June looked unpleasant, threatening brisk winds from the southeast. So, on 19th June, we headed south to another anchorage with more protection. That wasn’t as straightforward as we would have liked.
The pearl farm between the two anchorages is massive, and we had to take a long detour around the floats to get to our preferred location. This meant that Maria had to bake on the bow looking for bommies and pearl farm buoys. We had to weave our way past several of both in a circuitous route south, eventually arriving at our preferred destination behind a tree-covered motu an hour and a half later.
After carefully scanning the area for any large bommies, we dropped the anchor in sand, and I got in the water so we could attach floats to raise our anchor chain off the seabed. The floats are to prevent the chain from getting wrapped around the low-lying bommies that are scattered everywhere. This was our first time trying this technique, and it took a while to get the floats tied in the right place. But, after a couple of hours of careful experimentation, we were clearing any lumpy bits and were able to relax and wait for the wind to arrive.
Raroia is probably most famous for being the atoll where Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki raft shipwrecked in 1947. There’s a memorial on the island near to the shipwreck site, so we set off in the dinghy to find it before we got battered by the next blast of wind.
On the way north, we passed the active pearl farm and were surprised to see no pearl farm buoys closer to shore. If we had known in advance, we could have taken a direct route to our anchorage rather than half-cook Maria in the sizzling heat on the bow. But now, we know.
It isn’t clear which motu contains the Kon-Tiki memorial. Still, we had rough directions from Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia and eventually stumbled across it, rather than run into it like the Kon-Tiki crew.
Approaching the motu with the dinghy, we heard a voice shouting, “Hello. Allen!” With the sun in our eyeballs, we couldn’t see who this disembodied voice was. But, after running the dinghy to the beach, we could see it was Patrick and Sandra, who we last saw at Chez Jimmy’s in Tuahata. Small world and nice to catch up.
And for the benefit of anyone else trying to find the monument, it is located in the middle of the motu in this position: 16°3.875′ S 142°21.550′ W.
The forecasters weren’t wrong. The wind arrived at the predicted time with as much precision as a Tokyo commuter train. And it blew just as promised. Fortunately, our position behind the motu protected us from the worst of it. Although it was windier than a politician at full bluster, the sea state was flat, and we weren’t veering around.
After three days of this, and a maximum wind speed of 30 knots, the wind dropped to more normal conditions, and we were able to lower the dinghy again and get off the boat.
Because there are lots of sharp coral near the shore that could puncture the dinghy, Maria and I decided to snorkel across for a bit of exploring. So, we loaded a dry bag with cameras and bottles of water and swam the 200 metres to land. From this large motu, there are a series of smaller motus running from here all the way north and south. We went north towards an old pearl farm.
The gaps between these mini-islands are filled with bright, warm water and seem to be the preferred hunting ground for small reef sharks. These black-tipped beauties would swim over to us, turn sideways to check us out and continue on their way; an event repeated as we swam across the gaps towards our destination.
As we walked on the fringes of the motu with the old pearl farm, Maria spotted some hermit crabs. That’s nothing new around these parts, but these were in the process of changing shells. We had previously seen this on a BBC documentary where the crabs all lined up with each other to make a carefully coordinated transition to their new homes. What we witnessed was nothing like organized. These guys brawled with each other for possession of a new shell. One of the crabs made the mistake of coming out of his home too early and another, looking for an upgrade, grabbed it quicker than a squatter seeking his rights. That left the first crab homeless and bare-arsed.
After another half hour or so of fighting, the over-exposed crab must have felt the heat in more ways than one, so he reluctantly inserted his body in the way-too-small shell that the other crab had vacated. We continued to watch this performance until we, too, were getting overheated about an hour after we first came across them. Ultimately it’s likely that the crabs have come to a satisfactory conclusion, but whatever happened, it illustrates the patience of the BBC documentary camera folks. The footage we saw on the TV must have taken hours, if not days, to film.
Swimming between the motus is, frankly, hard work – especially when lugging a waterproof bag around. So, on the way back, we decided to take the windward route. Although not an attractive place to walk – it consists mainly of broken coral and looks not unlike the moon’s surface – there are fewer gaps between the motus, and the water between them is shallow enough to wade across.
One unexpected benefit of taking this route was the extraordinary sea life we encountered. Apart from the schools of small fish, we came across several Moray eels poking their menacing mugs out of their rocks and occasionally swimming in the shallow pools. One of the eels must have felt particularly threatened by us strange creatures in his home turf, so he puffed himself up to maximum size as he skittered past and darted under another rock.
The next day, our sole neighbours in our anchorage came over in their dinghy to invite us over for sundowners before the next wave of strong wind confines us all to our boats again. Later, we learned that the crew of Out 2 C had recently arrived in French Polynesia from Mexico, where they spent their lockdown period. Arriving at Nuku Hiva, the authorities offered them a coronavirus test, which they gladly accepted. We saw them there, in their facemasks, being escorted up the hill to the hospital in Taiohae to have various sticks pushed up their nostrils. The discomfort was worth it; as soon as the results were in, they could continue on their travels.
Because the wind had changed direction a few times since the last blast of bad weather, I thought it prudent to check the chain. It’s as well I did. Despite floating the chain, it was wrapped around one of the larger bommies scattered around us and would have created a problem for us when the strong wind arrived again. To fix this, Maria steered the boat, and therefore the chain, around the bommies while I stayed in the water to guide her in the right direction. This worked, but I sensed a bit too much enthusiasm when I said, “Head for me as if you are trying to run me over.”
Again, the wind arrived at the time, and strength predicted. At first, it was a relatively benign 18 to 24 knots and uneventful, apart from when one of the fenders we used as a float broke free, necessitating a dinghy rescue. Apart from that, for the most part, we spend our days reading and loafing around.
But, a few days later, with lighter winds forecast, it started blowing like the business end of a 747. On the morning of Thursday, 2nd July, the wind was strong enough for the storm brake on the wind generator to kick in – that’s around 40 knots.
Cleary, the weather folks, hadn’t received the memo. And because there is another wave of strong wind forecast to arrive in the middle of next week, we are planning to get out of here before one of us – probably me – goes even crazier.