Diving and Departures 

With the midday sun high in a cloudless sky, the colours around us, seemed almost impossible. We had motored Friday afternoon the few miles back east to the beautiful Hirifa bay. The sea was made up of the richest turquoises imaginable, the beach and sand banks shine a pearly white and the coconut palms sway a deep grass green. We were the only boat in the bay it was wonderfully peaceful. On shore I watched a small girl with her dog trailing behind her father as he does his chores.Tucked in amongst the trees lives one small family, each morning the husband jumps in his boat and goes north, presumably to work, returning around two. They laugh, sing and play each afternoon in the water. I know the reality is probably very different but from afar their life seems idyllic.

Turquoise, Harifa Bay

We had returned to this protected bay because the forecast was for the winds to pick up at the weekend and we were keen to lift our anchor chain from its torturous route around the coral heads, before the increase in breeze pulled us tight into knots. During the four days we had been at the anchorage at Fakarava South Pass we had swung back and forth through over 180 degrees, we could see we were completely wrapped around at least one bommie. So Friday afternoon we slowly, slowly teased the chain up, each time it pulled tight we let the boat drift over the top of it until in went slack. It took about twenty minutes but with a little help from the bow thrusters and occasionally the engine, we set it free without straining anything, hopefully without damaging the coral and without Rick having to go into the water to run the gauntlet of our circling shark friends.

In the morning we had dived the pass, I guess it was always going to be a bit of a disappointment. It was a good dive but it added little to the marvellous snorkelling we had already done. The only difference was, after descending to 28m we were surrounded by hundreds, honestly hundreds, of sharks gathered at the bottom of the pass, quite a sight. My dive was spoilt by a leaking mask that distracted me for most of the time. Rick assured me I hadn’t missed much, besides, a rare, large, but luckily not fully grown, black finned shark and a close encounter with the six foot long Maori Wrasse we had seen the day before. The dive finished with us swimming back into the shallows in front of the dive school. As we paddled across to return our kit, chatting about what we had seen, I suddenly realised this was where, just an hour before, we had seen a mass of black tips been fed from the kitchen. I whispered to Rick we are paddling through a shark pool, we giggle, again we reflect how strange it is that having your scuba kit on changes your perception. 

Feeding time at the dive school kitchen

Our plan was to go to the Rotoava on Sunday in the hope of finding some fresh food on Monday and then sailing a bit further north for a couple of days to visit one more atoll, before crossing over to Tahiti where we have a reservation at the marina for the following Saturday. However on checking the weather it seems the wind will last until Tuesday and then drop for the rest of the week. We make a snap decision to leave Tuamotu tomorrow through the South Pass on slack high tide.
We set off for one more snorkel to a patch of coral under the marker at the head of the bay.  Unfortunately there is quite a wind blowing and we could find nowhere we were happy to anchor the dingy.  I dropped into the water to have a look. The area is covered with incredible tree corals some almost five foot high complete with trunk, very interesting but not worth the risk, losing the dingy half a mile from Raya and land doesn’t bear thinking about.

Once back onboard we prepare for the 250nm passage. After over three weeks protected in the Tuamotu there is quite a lot to do. We rinse and tidy up all the snorkel and dive gear, lift the dingy on to the davits, check and organise the running rigging, make everything shipshape below and from our very depleted supplies rustle up a vegetable curry and bake some bread. 

Sunday afternoon we leave Hirifa to arrive at the pass approximately an hour before the tide turns. With the high winds over the past couple of days waves have been breaking over the encircling reef, filling the lagoon with water. As this water can only leave via the few gaps that form the passes, the pressure of water out of the lagoon can dominate even over the incoming tide, we expect the water in the lagoon to turn the tide early. And so it turned out, we motored out through turbulent water, with two knots behind us, grateful yet again to be onboard our large powerful yacht. 

With the tide times being what they are at the pass, to arrive in Tahiti in daylight means two nights and a day at sea, a tiring combination, the swell, as always on these westward crossing, was on our beam, no fish were caught, drizzle filled the air. Not our best trip but we are now safely tied up in Marina Taina on the west coast of Tahiti. 

Now where’s the Supermarket?

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We have some internet, hooray! So check out the last couple of blogs as I have added some photographs.

The incredible coral at the South Pass, Fakarava

Stunning South Pass

19th Thursday May 2016

Wow! We have just returned from the most incredible snorkel of our lives and we have had some amazing snorkelling over the years. We can’t wipe the smiles off our faces, the water at the south pass of Fakarava is unimaginably clear, the coral is stunning, the fish varied and plentiful, there are sharks everywhere.

Fakarava’s amazing clear water

Monday morning we set off from our calm anchorage at Hirifa for the southern pass, there were a few dark clouds threatening but looked like they would pass to the north. Almost as soon as we set out the wind started to pick up and backed, by the time we had motored the 3/4hr to our destination the squalls were blowing our way. The anchorage was very rough, the visability was very poor, we could see the torrential rain approaching in the distance. Not the best conditions to anchor in and why we would we want to spend another night bouncing around. We are now in the habit of recording our track on the chart plotter, we turn Raya around and retraced our path through the pouring rain and returned to the flat sea at Hirifa to await for better conditions.

Tuesday we tried again, the water was still choppy but the weather forecast, everybody agrees, is for a calm few days ahead. The anchorage is a mass of coral, there are mooring buoys but they are only specified to thirty tons we are thirty three, if the wind decides to get up again we would rather trust our anchor. I tried to drop it into a patch of sand but we can see through the clear water that it is hocked on to some rock, the chain meanders through the coral heads. Not a great situation, it could easily get wrap around one of the heads, it is holding however and we can at least see it when we need to get it up. As a last resort we can use our scuba gear to dive down and untangle it from the coral, there is one small extra problem however, we are surrounded by sharks. Not little three footers now but fully grown, black tips, white tips and even larger grey reef sharks. It gives a whole new meaning to feeding the fish off the back of the boat.

 

Sharks swimming around the boat

 
As is often pleasantly the case now, we have friends in the anchorage, the catamaran Yolata is sat on a mooring bouy next to us. They dingy over to say hello and give us the low down of what’s here. Incredible snorkelling on the pass, a dive shop, a collection of resort cabins, a bar where you can get a meal but you have to order it a day in advance and an old deserted town that was before a cyclone came through fifty years ago the capital of Tuamotu. No supplies however, we swap notes on the empty state of our fridges, being Australian and hearing we have only a few beers left, they immediately insist we have a case of theirs. We are again humbled by the generosity of the cruising community.

Wednesday dawned still and fine, without a doubt the best weather we have had since we arrived in Tuamotu, perfect for snorkelling. To snorkel the pass you need to firstly make sure you are doing it on an incoming tide, sweeping you into the lagoon rather than out to the ocean. You dingy to a mark put down in the pass by the dive centre, tie the dingy to your wrist and if the tide is strong enough, drift, if not swim, back towards the lagoon.

The water is so calm and clear, it is like looking through glass, we motor agog at the coral passing by below us. The sight under the water is even more breathtaking. The coral resembles a glorious rock garden, communities of small fish guard their patch on the reef, large shoals of bigger fish swim past, a spotted eagle ray drifts near the sea bed. We raise our heads exchange a glance of incredulity and return on masks to the water.

  

We must see a couple of dozen sharks, it’s funny when your head is above water they are frightening, I imagine them nibbling my toes as I hang from the dingy but as soon as you put your head in the water they are just part of the back drop. They glide past with an air of indifference, magnificent, powerful but not at all intimidating, Rick is clicking the camera as fast as it will reset, I just watch in amazement.

  
The current starts to pick up as we reach the end of the pass, instead of me dragging the dingy it starts to drag us. We are whisked around the corner towards the anchorage, a bed of beautiful coral whizzes past beneath us, a large barracuda swims by, we hardly notice so caught up are we with exilaration of flying through the water.

We pinch ourselves, same again tomorrow please.

In Short Supply

Monday 16th May 2016

Good weather is still in short supply. The South Pacific Convergence Zone or SPCZ would normally sit just below the equator but since late April has drifted further south and is producing unsettled weather all the way from Fiji to the Marquesas. So it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game anchoring in the atolls, as I’ve mentioned the fetch across the lagoon can bring choppy conditions if you are caught at the wrong end of the atoll for the current wind direction. However with no accurate forecast for the local weather good decision making is more luck then judgement. So we have decided to just carry on with our plans the best we can. Thursday morning we set off for the southern end of Fakarava, being one of the larger and more frequented atolls there is a buoyed channel leading from the north anchorage to the anchorage 25nm away in the south, our plan however, was to join our friends onboard Toothless off the pretty beach at Hirifa in the SE corner, where, they told us it was very calm.

  

About halfway down the channel we would have to leave it and follow the East coast, this also had buoys on the main obstacles but we had no reports as to how good the charts were here. This route would require, what they call in the cruising guides, eyeball navigation, or ‘looking out’ to you and me. We scanned the sky for dark clouds and deemed the conditions good enough for the sunlight to penetrate the grey, for us to see the dangerous coral heads. Sea with depths of over 15m is blue, below that it turns increasingly to shades of turquoise, the paler the turquoise the shallower the water. I stood on the bows, Rick steered and studied the chart. It was quite a tense hour or so but turned out to be quite straight forward, I was managing to spot the turquoise patches at about half a mile and the Navionics chart was impressively acurate.

We had chosen this spot because it was calm and quiet, with few other boats, Toothless were here so they could relax while their two small boys swam off the boat. The South pass is famous for its shark populations, it is one of the scuba worlds “must do” dives and our next stop. Toothless however had just come from there and after a fantastic few days diving and snorkelling they watched a large tiger shark chase a turtle around their bows and decided it perhaps wasn’t the best place for the boys to swim.

Shark tales fill the VHF and inter boat chatter here almost as much as the weather, so when we took the dingy ashore to do some snorkelling and saw two black tips swim by, we entered the water with some trepidation. They were only three foot long and had no interest in us, we told ourselves to stop being stupid and had a pleasant swim amongst the shallow coral heads. At this stage I would often swim the three or four hundred metres back to the yacht but here, even though I know it’s illogical, somehow I don’t fancy the open water.

We have our now normal clutch of remora under the boat. They are great fun and shoot out for any scraps we throw to them. In the Caribbean a few years ago Stephen and I witnessed them scoop up a small tube of toothpaste ( don’t ask it’s a long story ). Well we have another one with tummy ache, while replacing an anode on the propeller shaft, (an anode is a sacrificial piece of metal that you attach to important metal fittings under the water to divert the degradation caused by electrolysis…phew!). Rick had tied the appropriate alan key to some string hung from his dive jacket, when he came to use it, it was gone. He swore at himself for toying such a weak knot, came back to the surface and I got him another one. With the job finished he noticed that the knot had not come loose, the string had been bitten through!  It definitely discourages you from dangling your toes in the water.

  
Another thing in short supply are our provisions. In the luxury department things are dire, beer is down to six cans, we have no white wine, no gin, no limes or lemons, only four squares of chocolate, no biscuits and the only fruit is one rather tired pamplemousse. The fridge looks very empty, although a fun challenge to start with, it is getting quite tiring each day trying to work out something tasty to eat. It is not that we haven’t got food, we still have lockers full of cans and jars, we are not going hungry, as our waistlines will attest to, its just the lack of fresh food. We haven’t seen  staples such as mince or chicken breasts since Galápagos and fresh fruit and veg have really been a challenge since we left Panama.

Sunday I stood staring into the bare void of the fridge, a couple of carrots and a few potatoes stared back, we had a whole chicken in the freezer, Sunday roast, l thought.

  

First Year Celebrations

We have just completed our first year at sea, it’s difficult to fathom that we have sailed almost half way around the world. I still feel like we are just practicing but here we are sitting off a palm covered atoll in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

We had planned to celebrate with a nice meal at the poshest hotel we could find in Rotoava the main town on the Fatarava Atoll. We had enjoyed a nice lunch there at the beach bar over looking the clear waters of the lagoon. One of the main sources of income for the whole archipelago is pearl farming, the resort farms its own pearls but the display and shop didn’t open until  five so a perfect excuse to return for dinner the next day.

  

Wednesday started fine and calm, we set off for what is now a normal morning when we reach a bit of civilisation. Firstly find somewhere to get rid of the rubbish, Rotorava turned out, like all the Polynesian towns and villages we have visited so far, to be organised and tidy. There was a platform for rubbish, raised to stop the dogs rifling through the bags, sited conveniently next to the docks.

We walked down the Main Street, well the only street to be honest, through the town. Each house was brightly painted in a different colour and nestled in its own piece of land that was carefully tended and full of flowering plants. Leading from each roof were pipes into large water butts, the islands being just strips of coral have no source of fresh water and so every drop of rain is collected. Between the gaps of the houses and the tall pine trees that lined the road the turquoise sea sparkled invitingly. The town had a relaxed happy feel, people wandered down the street, chatted on corners, or leisurely cycled past, greeting each other and us with a wide smile and a friendly “Bonjour”. Incongruous to the sleepy atmosphere and overpowering the ever present roar of the ocean pounding the outside of the atoll, was the occasional blast of music, strangely everybody here seemed to be listening to rap.

  
We came to the couple of stores, the shelves were mostly empty but they did have thankfully the ubiquitous baguettes, we found potatoes and carrots, biscuits and crisps and ‘glory be’ some grapes. It is common to bump into other cruisers, everybody swaps what knowledge they have. Today it was the chef from a large motor boat, Dorethea, that we have seen in a lot of the anchorages since the Galápagos, he searched in vane for anything decent to cook with, I sent him in the direction of some fresh eggs we had found. Rick had bought the dingy to the nearest point to the store, today’s supermarket car park turned out to be a tiny sandy beach with a single post to tie the dingy up to.

  
A further rather hot quarter of a mile up the road bought us to the Fatarava Yacht Services office, basically just the house of an enterprising French couple, they will try to help with anything you need. They act as a postal address for letters or parcels of spares, they will do your laundry, provide you with small amounts of fuel, hire you a bicycle, book you a restaurant, the list goes on and on. We wanted their free access to the Internet, we bought tea and coffee, sat on the veranda and spent a pleasant hour catching up with the world, I posted a blog and some pictures, Rick downloaded 250 old emails and we checked an alternative weather forecast.

They also had a book exchange, you will find these in most ports of call, with the limited space onboard and restricted access to the Internet to top up on ebooks they are a highly valued commodity. Rick exchanged four books, as he put them into his bag it occurred to me that these books are doing their very own world cruise, hopping from one boat to another. What tales, besides those written in their pages, they must have to tell.

We returned to Raya and in the time it took for us to prepare lunch the hazy sunshine had disappeared and black clouds loomed on the horizon. A storm moved in, it blew around 25-35kts for about five hours. The wind was from the SE and as we were in the NE corner of the atoll we no longer had any protection and with the atoll over 25nm long, there was plenty of room for waves to form . The anchorage of boats was being battered by a short 4ft chop and monsoon levels of rain. We turned the path tracker on, on my iPad to check for any movement and switched the anchor alarm on, on the chart plotter, the anchor was holding firm. The dingy now impossible to raise onto the davits, bounced and bucked like a cork in a washing machine, we attached three lines to it and Rick had to risk life and limb to get onboard and bail it out, twice!

This weather was completely unforecast and by the way the local boats scrambled for home, I think even they were taken by surprise at its ferocity. There was no way we could leave the boat and even if we could have got into the dingy there was no way we could have motored the mile, in the sea conditions, to the hotel dingy dock for dinner. Instead we found ourselves celebrating a year at sea, huddled, damp and cold in the cockpit, anxiously watching the dingy and the yellow squiggle of our track as we swung back and forth, sipping mugs of hot tomato soup.

In fact a scene rather similar to that found during the last few days before we left Southampton. It’s a funny old world.

Living in a Screen Saver

Sunday 8th May 2016
We continue to sit under a veil of cloud, every now and then we see a patch of blue sky but then another squall forms and the rain is back. Despite the weather we are enjoying it here, snuggled in the SE corner of Kauehi Atoll, we are protected from most of the chop and swell, there are a few yachts anchored about a mile away but otherwise we are completely alone.
In front of us we have a string of uninhabited, palm covered motu, areas along the reef that sit above sea level, in this case probably just three meters above sea level, they are extremely pretty. Catching the view through a port light, Rick smiles “it’s like living in a screen saver”. 

  

Ashore however, with dark clouds gathering and a brisk wind blowing in from the ocean, things look a little different. With no waves it is an easy landing for the dingy at the steep beach, we tie up to a palm and then pull the boat a little way off with the anchor, as the beach turns out not to be made of soft white sand but of a trillion small pieces of sharp broken coral. We put on our sand skipper shoes and walk to the end of the motu and a shallow pass towards the ocean outside. It is low tide, the rocky landscape has just a smattering of struggling shrubs, with a grey sky above and the continuous pounding of waves hitting the reef, the environments feels quite hostile.

As we round the corner, we are suddenly, surrounded by a couple of dozen squawking sooty terns and we realise we must be passing a nesting sight, we keep to the shore line to disturb then the least we can. Rick spots a moray eel wallowing in a rock pool and small fish dart in and out with the waves. We find scores of beautiful shells some empty, some not, a hundred hermit crabs wriggle beneath our feet, the scuttle of tiny shells making the ground appear to move. 

  

As the tide turns, water begins to rush through the pass into the lagoon, we return to the dingy on the inner reef. We had to weave through a maze of coral heads to reach the beach and so decide to have a quick look beneath the surface. After all the years we have snorkelled and dived I don’t know why we are still always so shocked, despite all clues from the surface, at how incredible it is the moment you put your mask on and look under the water. Here it is exceptional, the visibility even without the bright sunshine is excellent. In the calm, shallow water it looks almost as if someone has put the contents of a large aquarium into a swimming pool.

There is a good mix of coral in a rainbow of colours, clams imbedded in the rock clamp shut as you approach hiding the luminescent blues, turquoises and purples of their fleshy jaws and soft corals nestle brightly in the nooks and crannies. Being so shallow the fish are small but they are plentiful. Angel fish, butterfly fish, small colourful wrasse, parrot fish and a dozen more varieties I don’t recognise.

  

Onboard, we relish our isolation and the spectacle of the changing weather. 

  

Snatching the opportunity during a lull, Rick puts on his scuba gear and cleans the hull fittings and checks the anodes. We have two friendly remora or flip flop fish as we nicknamed them in the Caribbean, swimming around the boat. They have a sucker area at the top of their head, shaped a bit like a flip flop and spend their lives hitching a ride, stuck on to the likes of sharks or as Rick discovers, in this case, to the bottom of our hull. We have to think that our antifoul can’t be good for them however they continue to dart out to pick up the scraps we throw them, looking as sprightly as ever. 
The cloudy days do mean it is a little cooler so we also set to with domestic chores below. I decide to tackle the cooker, oven cleaning is my least favourite job, so every now and then I raise my head and look out of the hull port, just to remind myself that I am at least, scrubbing, whilst living in a screen saver.

P.S.

Tuesday 10th April 

We arrived at the small town of  Rotoava in North Fatarava yesterday afternoon. We have found internet, if you look  back you can see the few photos I have managed to insert into the last couple of posts.

Timing the Pass

Wednesday 4th May 2016

As Tuesday night went on the wind gradually dropped, a marvellous sunrise filled Rick’s watch. We mulled over the old rhyme – red sky at night shepherds delight, red sky in the morning shepherds warning, did that only apply to shepherds or was it relevant mid Pacific Ocean?

  
To reach our first destination, the atoll of Kauehi, at 9.30 the next morning and the slack tide to enter through the pass, we would have to average nearly seven knots which would mean motoring through the light winds. We spent an hour studying charts and guides and discussing our options. This is not that easy, unfortunately there is no definitive guide to the Tuamotu Archipelago and so it is a matter of cross referencing from the five or six different sources we have collected. To make things even more difficult we didn’t want to arrive at night or navigate through the inside of the atoll in low light. The lagoons are only roughly charted, coral heads abound, they are best crossed with the sun high in the sky and preferably behind you, when sea floor is most visible.

It quickly became clear that the likelihood of satisfying these optimum conditions was extremely low. Our alternatives were to, try to keep the speeds up and stick to the original plan, hoping we could make it in time and the cloud would lift. Sail pass Kauehi to the next atoll, Fatarava, the second largest in the group with a large northern pass that was apparently OK in almost all conditions and states of tide. We could turn north and go to one of the northern atolls which should have slack tides later in the morning or we could enter Kauehi on slack high tide at about 3pm and risk crossing to our anchorage in fading light. Finally we could slow right up spend another day at sea and aim to arrive Thursday morning.

We decided to stick with plan A, we turned on the engine, optimised the sails as best we could and motor sailed towards Kauehi. The rods were out, the day before we had hooked a tuna that escaped just metres from the boat, we were hopeful in the calm sea that we would have fish for supper. It was not to be, we did catch something but it was much bigger, it quickly snapped the line taking yet another of our diminishing selection of lures. It was a shame the engine was disturbing the peace, Tuesday turned into a fantastic day. The flat sea sparkled a deep blue, frequent fluffy white clouds gave us respite from the sun, all was well with the world.

Wednesday night however proved to be a different matter, during my watch in the early hours of the morning the non existent winds picked up a bit and moved around to the west. We haven’t see winds west of south since we left Las Palmas, I reset the sails and pushed on. When Rick took over the watch the winds had died down again, he noted in the log book for 4am, winds of 1.4 knots. Suddenly the breeze picked up and reverted to the SE, the sails came out, the engine went off. Within ten minutes everything went bonkers, the wind was gusting up to 36kts and the calm sea turned messy. There had been no warning, no rain and no obvious darker clouds, as we sailed on the weather turned squally I guess we had been passing through a front. Luckily it was Rick on watch, he reacted quickly, all was ok.

There was one upside to the change in conditions we were now storming to our destination. As we approached the atoll the weather had improved slightly and we spotted the AIS of another boat about to exit the pass. We watched him carefully and called him on the VHF, he confirmed there was still an outgoing tide and he had been spat out by a 4kt current. Half an hour later and dead on our guesstimated slack tide we motored through the pass in calm water with the help of a half knot from the new incoming tide.

Once inside we had two choices, the well trodden, charted path to the only inhabited part of the atoll or a couple of waypoints that we were assured lead safely to an idyllic, protected anchorage in the deserted SE corner. The sky was cloudy but bright, buoyed by our easy entry through the pass, we decided to take the adventurous path and headed south. We met no obstacles and are now anchored in 10m on sand, clear of coral heads that may snag our chain, off our very own desert island. The conditions have continued to be stormy but the sea is dead flat and Raya is stock still, not such a bad place to wait for a change in the weather.