July 2000 : The Tuamotus



Ia orana from Perdika in Papeete, Tahiti.

From the majestic Marquesas Islands, we set sail southwestwards at the end of last month for the Tuamotus – 500 miles of the most uneventful sailing we could wish for. Calm seas, lightish but favourable winds and current - and sunshine all the way. We sighted only one ship and disappointingly little marine life. The only fish we caught got away.

The Tuamotu Archipelago is a group of 78 coral atolls stretching northwest to southeast for 750 miles in a double chain 375 miles wide. Forty five of them are inhabited, by a population totalling around 12,500. Mururoa Atoll, site of the infamous French nuclear testing activities is at the far southeast of the group; we kept to the northwestern end.

The contrast between the awesome peaks of the Marquesas and these very low-lying atolls could not be greater. The encircling coral reefs are topped all around by palm-covered ‘motus’ – islets no more than six foot high and become visible from the sea only a few miles off. On the outside the ocean waves come pounding on to the reef with a constant and mighty roar. On the inside all is quiet - the lagoons enclosed by the atolls are like huge flat lakes – a sort of mid-ocean lake district – an extraordinary phenomemon. It was disorientating to have one’s perceptions played with. Our interpretation of the view presented, once inside the lagoon, was as the shoreline of an inland lake – but of course, this ‘shore’ was no more than a narrow and fragile strip of low land some 200 to 300 yards wide, and all that was separating us from thousands of square miles of open ocean. I suppose our perception of ‘land’ would seem just as strange to a native of the Tuamotus. The group is also known, with good reason, as ‘The Dangerous Archipelago’- fraught with navigational challenge. Not only are the atolls hard to spot, but strong on-shore currents run in their vicinity, and the dangers of reefs are obvious. However with GPS, at least the problem of location is solved – it is not too difficult to find the atolls or the precise position of the passes into their lagoons. However, navigation within the lagoons, with reefs and coral heads to be avoided, does remain somewhat tricky, as does the timing of entry in through the passes. The tides sluice in and out of these gaps in the reef at a terrifying rate, and it is essential to arrive at or very close to slack water. The trick of our 500 mile passage from the Marquesas was to arrive off our chosen pass at precisely the right time. This would have been a great deal easier had we been able to establish a definitive time for when that might be. We were somewhat surprised at the range of tidal predictions from the several sources at our disposal. Of course, in the end it all comes down to observation as to what is actually happening.

We arrived at our first atoll – Ahé - just after dawn and waited for reasonable light before attempting the reef pass. This resulted in a rather late entry and we had to fight some four knots of tide against us in a very disturbed sea. However, we made it in safely – despite being washed frighteningly close to the edge of the reef at one point. Entering our first lagoon was a unique experience. Ahé is one of the smaller atolls, but the lagoon appeared far larger than we had anticipated. The abrupt change to completely flat water and silence, after the crashing of the rolling ocean was extraordinary. We then had to make our way cautiously some five miles to an anchorage off the village of Tenukupara on the far side, the route vaguely marked by buoys and posts.

The anchorage was just off the only village of the atoll, with a population of about 200 people. Very few outsiders visit the place and it is simply a working community. Our main contacts were with the children, who were very chatty and interested in us. We also came across a little group of women one evening practicing their traditional dance routine in a back garden, which was delightfully entertaining! Other yachtsmen were quite successful at bartering for quantities of pearls, but being too reticent ourselves we didn’t pursue this. Apart from anything else, we didn’t have the drugs or excess alcohol we heard were favoured items for exchange! Having subsequently seen the prices of even sub-standard pearls, we rather regretted not trying harder! The village, although quite impoverished by its remoteness seemed materially relatively well off. However, the food store could offer only the most basic of items – mainly tins. We have been finding the economics of French Polynesia hard to fathom. Once or twice a week small supply ships arrive delivering everything needed, including bread and fresh produce. As soon as is sighted, launches from homes all around the lagoon start heading for the village dock and all is bustle for a couple of hours, before the village subsides back into its normal quiet. inactivity. We could not understand why there was no local baker - and nothing grown. Admittedly it must be said that this observation is made on the basis of a rather brief visit!

The business of Ahé is cultured pearls. The lagoon is dotted with hundreds of buoys from which are suspended special ropes on to which the oysters cling. All around the atoll are pearl farms, with dwellings and workshops on stilts above the water. We were lucky enough to meet a charming couple – local Ahé wife and Californian, ex-yachtie husband - who have a small pearl farming operation. They live on their own little motu in an idyllic setting, with their house facing into the lagoon on a beautiful palm fringed beach. They were extremely informative and interesting about the process involved in pearl culture and very generously gave us several very lovely ‘sub-standard’ pearls. These are a beautiful deep green colour – and we discovered later in the tourist shops of Tahiti – of not inconsiderable value.

Our time on Ahé was restful in the extreme. The whole look of the place induced enormous peace and tranquility – the calm water of the lagoon and the huge open and uninterrupted skies all around – a huge contrast to the soaring peaks of the Marquesas – which had come to feel almost oppressive, mightily dominating every scene as they did. We knew most of the half dozen yachts there with us and the social scene included several beach barbecues. The snorkelling – right off the boat in the rather worryingly coral bommie ridden anchorage – was very good. Chris cleaned the hull, I made bread. One highlight was our visit to the doctor. We had decided to take up the chance of protection against the disease of elephantiasis, having noticed the tell-tale signs of this mosquito-borne parasitic infection – grossly swollen feet and legs – among a few of the local population. The French Health Service has initiated a programme to eradicate the problem once and for all. We duly called in one morning to the tiny clinic – it transpires that every island, no matter how tiny, has one. We were greeted by a gigantic and jolly young Polynesian guy, wearing flowery shorts and a ‘Killerwave’ teeshirt. He turned out to be the doctor! In a mixture of French and English, we were weighed and had our dose of pills doled out. Simple as that – cost us nothing - very impressive!

From Ahé we set sail for Rangiroa, the largest atoll of the group 80 miles to the south. We arrived off our landfall again at dawn, having had to slow down overnight. We hung around the pass for about an hour and then made our entry – this time rather too early – plunging through turbulent seas and a strong current. Rangiroa means ‘extended sky’ and is aptly named – it is huge - 50 by 15 miles – a circumference of 140 miles, with 240 motus all around. The opposite side is out of sight below the horizon. The business of Rangiroa is leisure – it is a great big gorgeous playground. We anchored off the most beautiful and swanky hotel we have ever seen – tasteful little thatched ‘huts’ (which incorporated jacuzzis on their terraces!) on the beach, and some built out over the water on stilts. It costs over £300 to spend a night here apparently! The beach and surrounding area were exquisitely ‘manicured’ – clean and sparkling – the classic model of a Pacific atoll. The marine life is stunning – this is a world class diving area, and we snorkelled every day on reefs teeming with fish of hundreds of varieties, colours and sizes. These included sharks – reef white and black tips – so we felt very brave – although they are reputedly harmless to humans. Far more menacing were the moray eels lurking in crevices in the coral, their heads poking out with evil expressions. Everything else was benign and beautiful. The most spectacular experience was to drift snorkel the pass, on the tide flowing into the lagoon. The reef there was especially beautiful with a quite astonishing number of fish. It was the most fantastic and fabulous experience to be carried effortlessly past this dream-world. The technique was to take the dinghy as far through the pass as its little engine would go against the current (making use of side counter-current), then to drop overboard keeping hold of the painter. When the ‘ride’ was over and the current slowed, we would get back into the dinghy and do it all over again. It was addictive.

The two villages in Rangiroa – Tiputa and Avatoru were better provisioned than Ahé, and included a bakery with freshly baked baguettes. The ‘bread run’ involved a rather dicey dinghy dash across the pass to the village there, involving crucial tidal calculations. The trick was not to be swept into or out of the lagoon, whilst at the same time not missing the brief period between the freshly baked bread going on sale, and being sold out. Unexpectedly one might imagine on a coral atoll, we had access to water (desalinated at the hotel) and e-mail – the two necessities of life for cruising yachts.

We spent over a week in Rangiroa – longer than planned – partly because we were having such beautiful fun but also because the weather had settled into a windless calm. It was ironic then that on the day we decided we must leave – even if it meant some motoring – we were suddenly faced with strong headwinds as a new weather system developed. The passage to Tahiti was a 220 mile beat into winds of up to 30 knots. We are not at all used to sailing into the wind – nearly all our passages have been downwind – and it was a nasty shock to the system. 48 hours of it left us feeling somewhat exhausted – and extremely grateful to our ever reliable and tireless windvane steering.

Arriving into Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and the whole of French Polynesia, was to enter a different world. We had visited no town with a population larger than about 3,000 people since Panama in April, so we were quite excited at the prospect of ‘civilisation’ – not to mention fresh fruit. Our first trip ashore was a gleeful visit to the supermarket, skipping down the aisles grabbing fruit, vegetables, bacon, cheese and all sorts of items we had been deprived of over the past few months.

We had planned to arrive in Tahiti rather earlier in July than we did, in order to see something of the ‘Heiva’. This is an annual month long festival of sport, culture and craft involving displays and competitions in dancing, singing, canoe-racing, crafts and all manner of activities, with participants from all over French Polynesia. By the time we arrived the festival was in its last days, but we did manage to view a sailing outrigger race, the craft display and some dancing. It was all surprisingly unsophisticated and charming. While in Tahiti we have also visited the Museum of Polynesia and an exposition on Gauguin – both excellent and informative. So much for culture, the rest of our time has been devoted to the more mundane activities of stocking up on food and boat parts and the usual boat maintenance chores – with a little snorkelling for light relief. Eating out here in Papeete is good fun – at ‘les Roulottes’ - mobile restaurants which set themselves up on the waterfront, serving every style of food at very good prices. It seems quite acceptable to buy food from one and eat at another, so a group of friends all eating different sorts of meal can sit together.

It seems churlish to be even remotely disappointed with Tahiti, but having fulfilled our material requirements, we have to say it is probably our least fascinating Pacific island so far in other respects – possibly because it is the most European, the largest and most urban. Our anchorage right at the end of the airport runway while not the most beautiful location ever, is OK – an easy bus trip – on ‘Le Truck’ into the town. Every lunch time the locals take to the water, on training sessions in their six man outrigger canoes. We have the most wonderful view of the nearby island of Moorea – a highly evocative image of the Pacific – (from films like ‘South Pacific’ and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’). We are now gazing across to that skyline, eager to be off there, and then on to the other Society Islands. Time to move on.