The Tuamotu islands, also known as the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’, are so low-lying that they make the Maldives look like Manhattan. And in the days before GPS navigation, many ships drove their vessels straight into the unseen reefs with inevitable consequences. Even now, in the era of electronic navigation, care needs to be taken to ensure that what is physically there is visible on the chart. Vector charts don’t often show everything unless they are zoomed all the way in; something of which the Clipper and the Volvo Ocean Race participants are all too aware – both having lost boats on reefs unseen on their plotter screens.
So, with that in mind, we approach the islands very carefully.
Red Skies and Dolphins
The weather gods were kind to us, though. We didn’t experience strong winds or many squalls. And we arrived at the pass entrance to Kauehi four days later, just in time for slack water, accompanied by a beautiful sunrise and a small pod of dolphins. The only downside of the passage was the rolling sea that makes cooking and sleeping a masochistic sport. So, we were looking forward to the flat seas inside the Motus of the Tuamotus.
We heard from our friends onboard Karma of some free mooring balls just outside the village. The moorings gifted us a double bonus: free (always welcome), and a way of avoiding hassles with the anchor chain in the predicted shifting wind. After entering the pass, we motored for 1.5 hours to the other side of the island, until we spotted the moorings, and grabbed one. Then, after Maria tied a pair of long lines to the mooring loop, I dived on the mooring to check its condition – and found them to be in good shape and heavily constructed. Happy with that, we stayed put and enjoyed the flatness.
Maria and I landed our dinghy on the beach and took a walk around the island. It was Saturday, but the town looked to be enjoying a sleepy day. The shops were closed; some people were making repairs to their houses; some were preparing coconuts for copra production; a few children were riding their bikes, and a couple of men in a pickup truck, stuffed inside and out with coconuts, passed us by with a wave and a bonjour. And the fire engine, used when a plane lands at the small airstrip, sat dormant outside someone’s house.
It’s clear to see that copra production is a significant source of income here in Kauehi, but so is pearl farming. We saw several pearl nets hung out to dry. And the Karma folks bought some of the end product. It isn’t possible to buy high-quality pearls here, those are shipped over to the likes of Tokyo, but the slightly distorted ‘B-grade’ ones for sale here have their unique beauty.
Kauehi possesses the picture-postcard image of the South Pacific. The waters around the palm-fringed island range in colour from the brightest of blue to the lightest of green and the reefs are home to a multitude of brightly coloured and unusual fish. We took these photographs when we snorkelled near the back of Lady Jane.
We told the good Karma people, Graham, Joan and AA, about our dwindling supply of water caused by our broken watermaker. And, as luck would have it, Graham said he has a few spare pumps that we could try. The next day he came along with some of them and, to cut a long story short, after attaching two of them in series to get enough pressure, we were producing water again. Showers every day mean that we are delighted, and so are the people with whom we come in contact. Before that, bath time was in the sea.
Mara’amu – A Storm Coming
We intended to stay only a few days before heading to Fakarava, but the wind had other plans. A local weather phenomenon – the Mara’amu – was due to arrive in style across a vast swathe of the South Pacific, promising winds of 30 knots plus. That is uncomfortably windy, so we weren’t going anywhere.
While we waited for the Mara’amu to arrive, we attached a safety line to the chain part of the mooring to supplement the two already on the mooring strop; lowered the anchor to just above the seabed; set two anchor alarms. And while we waited, we decided to do some boat-related jobs: I replaced the broken spokes on Maria’s bike; Maria polished all the brass light fittings, and I revarnished the floor.
The winds were predicted to arrive by the evening of 2nd July. And that morning everything was strangely calm. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the sea was so flat that we could see the anchor hovering just above the seabed. It’s clichéd, but that was the calm before the storm.
Late that evening, the winds arrived. Our wind generator cuts out at around 40 knots, and it cut out a lot that night in the gusts. It was howling like a banshee. And because of the noise and the constant worry that our mooring would break, sleep didn’t come easy. I dozed in the cabin, with an anchor alarm next to my ear, the companionway hatch open, and the key in the ignition ready to start the engine if we needed it.
The wind continued to blow like this for three nights and, although the worst of it was supposed to be early morning on the 3rd July, the following days were worse. The wind became more consistent – always above 30 knots and occasionally up to 38. We initially set the wind alarm for 32 knots but had to increase that to 35 because the buzzer kept going off.
We couldn’t go anywhere while this was going on, so I continued varnishing the floorboards. Maria baked some bread and dried some chillies and, out of near-absolute boredom, reread the ‘International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea’ rulebook.
Fortunately, the wind started to ease on Friday, and by the time we left on Monday morning, the sea was as flat as it was before the winds arrived. This time the forecast was for nothing more than a gentle breeze for the next few days at least. So, we slipped our mooring ball at around 0715 to reach the Kauehi pass at slack water and headed to Fakarava.