Updated: Nov 13
The Tuamotu archipelago consists of over one hundred and seventy atolls. It is impossible to visit all of them, but how should one choose which to visit? For many boats, including Skyfall, the atolls are cruised after the Marquesas and before the Society Islands (Tahiti). The direct route would ‘graze’ the north western end of the archipelago and the obvious atolls to visit are those on the direct route; Ahe, Manihi, Takaroa and Rangiroa. Many yachts follow this logic.
However, the Pacific Crossing Guide points out that, by visiting the less frequented atolls, you will receive a warmer welcome from the villagers as your visit will still have ‘novelty value’. The lack of tourists should also make them more intriguing places with less western influence. Bearing this in mind, we planned Raroia, the place where Thor Heyerdahl's adventure with ‘Kon Tiki’ culminated, as our first stop. (Our first reef pass was described in the last post ‘The First time’). Anchoring off the village, we were the only boat there.
The people were indeed very welcoming. As we stepped ashore from the dinghy dock we were waved over to a group playing boule. This was THE Sunday afternoon entertainment in the village of circa 100 inhabitants. Each couple contributed to a pot and, after round robin games lasting all afternoon, the winner takes all. We were invited to join but declined as we had a new island to explore. We asked if there was a shop. Not content with giving directions, two girls led us there personally, using the opportunity to practise their French.
On the way back to the dinghy after our walk, Gaston, one of the boule players, asked if we needed internet and, if yes, would we like to come to his house to use his wi-fi. We jumped at the chance only to discover that this was his way of generating an audience for his Kon Tiki anecdotes.
When the raft was wrecked on the other side of the atoll in 1947, the first hint the villagers had that something was amiss was when belongings (clothes, provisions) started being washed ashore. Once located, the survivors were brought to the village. This saved a young boy’s life. He had fallen and had a bad head injury. With no medical support on the island he would most likely have died. Fortunately one of the crew was a doctor and treated the wound properly. As a result the boy grew up recounting every conceivable Kon Tiki story to any visiting yachtsman. As he grew older, he preferred that the visitors came to him and, as a boy, Gaston tasked himself with telling visitors about the narrator and leading them to him. As a result he heard all the stories first hand multiple times. After the narrator passed away a couple of years ago, Gaston has taken it upon himself to re-tell the stories. His favourite story concerns the marmalade.
The villagers could see clearly what most of the items washed ashore were. But they had never seen marmalade before. One guy was sure it was glue. On Sunday before church, he noticed that his best shoes had a problem with the sole. So he used his jar of ‘glue’ to help stick them together. Throughout the service people could not understand why ants from far around were crawling over one of his feet!
In 2007, Heyerdahl’s grandson repeated the journey, and, on arrival, erected a plaque to commemorate the event. We motored across to the (wonderful) anchorage on the other side of the lagoon to visit it.
After a couple of days there, relaxing and snorkelling, we decided to modify our plans and head to Makemo. Reason; it was rumoured that the village of 600 people had 4G internet! Sailing between atolls takes a bit of planning because it is best to exit and enter the atolls at slack water. You also need to understand the sailing time between atolls (depending on weather and distance) and all these things need to stack up. Makemo was almost 90nm away, too far to do in one day, so we planned an overnight sail. With the times of the slack water we had 18 hours to sail 90nm so Skyfall was set up to ‘go slow’ all the way. We started with Genoa only and then switched to 3 reefs in the main and half a genoa as the wind dropped. The pass was uneventful and we dropped anchor by the village. This place is renowned as having poor holding (of the anchor) but three windless days were forecast so we were not concerned.
We had some great sunsets those days (see top picture too)
During our first walk through the village we stopped on the seaward side of the pass to watch some surfers enjoying the waves. We were joined by two brothers who had also come to watch with their own home brew. It was a fortified wine made from pineapple which tasted like a sweet sherry. Their way of avoiding the steep tax on alcohol in French Polynesia.
We were treated to the rhythm of a traditional percussive band practising by the quay. With Bastille day coming, the sessions seemed to become longer and more intense each day.
We had arrived in Makemo just behind a Finnish boat, sv Zelda. It did not take long to get together with Heikki and Sheryl and we were amazed how many common friends we had (Ruffian, Zen Again, Cerulean, Walkabout). The following day, two more Scandinavian boats arrived (Seawind and Song of the Sea). We soon realised that this group were very experienced and highly capable (sailed to Antarctic etc). Just as in Linton Bay, we had another opportunity to learn. We were introduced to the svsoggypaws.com website with it’s Tuamotu compendium - an excellent (essential?) guide to this area. We were also introduced to a French app QTVLM, which allows display of ‘mbtiles’ satellite image with your location on a tablet or phone. This is an alternative to Open CPN.
Everywhere in the Tuamotus the water is crystal clear giving brilliant snorkelling, especially in the passes. There are lots of sharks around but, inside the atolls they are mainly harmless black tips and reef sharks. However, in the passes lemon sharks and tiger sharks, which can be more dangerous, are sometimes around so it pays to ask locals before drift snorkelling the passes.
Before coming here I believed that negotiating the passes and avoiding bommies in the atolls would be the most serious challenges. Not true. Anchoring takes great skill and you need to be very careful. Most important is to find a large enough patch of sand, free from bommies. The Tuamotus compendium mentioned above is an excellent resource, together with satellite images. Secondly, it is important to ‘float the chain’ so that only 2x depth of chain is at bommy height.
In 10m of water, the first buoy is after 20m of chain, then 30m and 40m. As the boat swings, most of the chain is above the bommies and will not get tangled
Even then, there are several ‘marginal’ anchorages where it is almost inevitable that the chain or anchor will get stuck. Being able to free dive to the anchor depth and/or having diving gear on board (or on a friendly neighbouring boat) is a good safeguard. Almost half the boats we met here had diving gear and a compressor!
After a few days off the village, we moved to an anchorage half way up the Makemo atoll. The anchorage was lovely with great snorkelling and a beautiful sunset (see top photo). The difficulty level to find a sandy patch among the bommies was probably ‘Medium’. We dropped the anchor correctly but, when going in reverse to set it, the anchor did not bite. There was just a scattering of sand over volcanic rock. I did not stop soon enough and the anchor skidded along the bottom until it got wedged under a coral head.
The boat was going nowhere so we settled in to enjoy sundowners and deal with it later. The next day the wind had turned through 90 degrees and our chain was also wrapped around the same coral head. We were in 6.7m and I thought I should be able to free dive to untangle it. After lunch, and after the morning snorkelling session, I went down and successfully freed the chain. Feeling confident, I left the anchor thinking I would worry about pulling it out just before we left. Where it was the anchor was not going to drag!
The next morning, whilst Annick was making breakfast, I swam down to free the anchor. I wanted to descend quickly to save my breathe for the heavy lifting. Too fast. I did not get any warning pain in my ear but, suddenly, there was a loud BANG in my right ear. The eardrum had popped. It happened as I grabbed the anchor. I still managed to pull on the anchor and freed it. But my whole world was starting to spin. I was completely disorientated and did not know which way was up. I could see the surface but it was rotating around me so fast. I honestly thought there was a risk I would drown. My balance and sight were totally confused so I closed my eyes and felt the bottom under my feet. With the adrenaline kicking in, I pushed for the surface. I broke surface and still the world was spinning in front of me. Fortunately I was close to a float (fender) and grabbed it and hung on. After two minutes the dizziness eased and I swam to the stern to pull myself out of the water, still with a sharp pain in the ruptured ear. I was so relieved to be out of the water. Then a ‘seasickness’ feeling came over me and I promptly vomited.
It was a close shave. Of course, it was my own stupid fault for not taking the time to equalise the pressure in my ear as I descended. Anyway, we lifted the anchor successfully and set off for the final anchorage in Makemo, close to the western pass. This anchorage was the worst I had seen. There were tall bommies everywhere. A French boat was there already and on the only decent bit of sand available. We searched the area for 45 minutes and, although I was not really happy, I identified a patch that may work if we were very accurate. A Big mistake. The anchor just touched the sand patch but Skyfall drifted forward as we were setting the floats and we wrapped the chain around the first bommie past the sand patch. It was in nine metres and, with my ear, I could not dive anyway. We had no option but to ask for help. We had met the French boat (SV Hippocampe) in Raroia and we knew they had diving gear on board. In addition the two sons, Lucas and Pierre, were happy that they could free dive 9m without scuba gear. They came to have a look and assured us that, when we were ready to leave next morning, they would come and free it for us. It is the first time (so far), since we left Belgium, that we have had to rely on another boat for help. There is no way we would have got the anchor out without them.
So, with their help, we left the next morning having 'seen it all' with sunsets, bommies and a really close shave - all in our first two weeks in the Tuamotus. Our next destination was Tahanea, the location for a mid-summer party organised by the Scandinavian boats. More of that in the next post