Saturday, July 24, 2004


The trip to the Tuamotos was approx 500 miles, and we greatly appreciated Brendan’s help and company en route. These islands were formerly known as the Dangerous Archipelago. We had debated whether or not to visit these islands as they have the reputation of being tricky to navigate and at one time were notorious for shipwrecks. Hiscock (a famous UK sailor) wrote that they “may well be on of the most difficult and dangerous island areas in the world”. The difficulty is much reduced by having GPS on board, though I am sure the reefs themselves are just as dangerous as ever! The group is vast – comprising 78 coral atolls. Darwin, on the same voyage as when he visited the Galapagos, figured out that that the islands are the remainder of volcanic islands which once would have had a fringing coral reef. The volcanos gradually subsided, but the coral kept growing as the sea level rose and now there is only coral, but in roughly the outline of the original volcano. The maze of reefs and islands extends for about 900 miles.

All the islands are similar in character and have great sameness of feature. This is the difficulty Hiscock experienced – it is very hard to determine where you are in the group as the atolls all look the same. The general form is a broken line of white coral beach around the rim of the atoll, with the highest feature being palm trees. Most of the atolls have a pass, or channel, through the reef into the lagoon. There are many breaks between the islets in the rim, and you really need to be sure you are heading into the “correct” pass! In addition, the atolls can be are within a few miles of each other and sometimes the islets (or motu) of one atoll are so far apart as to appear to be part of other atolls. The GPS is, obviously a great help, and we found the charts to be fairly accurate – although at times there a divergence of up to a mile, and you might find the chart showing you sailing across land.

We visited 3 of the lagoons – Ahe, Apataki and Tuoau. In order to enter an atoll, you must positively identify the island, and then positively identify the pass. Having found the pass, you need to enter as close to slack water as you can – the currents in the pass are alarming –the guides warn of currents up to nine knots, standing waves and strong eddy currents. Within the lagoons isolated (and generally unmarked) coral heads (or 'bombies') are a danger which require a lookout on the bow all the time. In order to see the coral, you need the sun behind you to cut down the glare, a slight breeze so the surface of the water is not too glassy and polaroid sunglasses are a great help. We went to 3 atolls, and hit them all at slack water – heaving-too overnight in one case – so we were saved any dramatic entrances, though the turbulence even at “slack-water” was very impressive.

Inside the lagoon, the water colours are amazing, as is the clarity of the water. You can see the bottom easily at 20m, and the tones vary from deep blue, to turquoise, to green, to pale green - as the depth changes. There are amazing numbers of fish in the lagoons and particularly in the passes. Apart from fish, the lagoons are famous for their sharks - we haven't seen so many of them, one fairly close up before I dove on the anchor to check it was well stuck in. I just kept telling myself that they must be well fed. Pearl farming is big in these atolls - a function of the purity and the temperature of the water. The pearl farms represent another navigational hazard, although after a few days we got quite good at spotting the small bouys from a distance. Any ideas Henri might have had of choosing some pearls as a souvenir were dashed when we discovered that perfect pearls are much dearer than diamonds, and had to agree that our cruising budget could not stretch to such expenses.

We spent several days anchored off our own motu, with only had a family of wild pigs for company which was fantastic. We then tied to a town quay in Apataki- we think the first quay since Lefkas in Greece - and met with many of the people in the village. It was like being moored in an aquarium, the shoals of fish around the boat were stunning. After a few days of solitude, the warm welcome and inquisitiveness of the local people was great fun. As the only boat in the village, we were often visited and made presents of fish on several days - including a large piece of beautiful yellow fin tuna, and also jacks and parrot fish. One fisherman noticed that I had the same GPS as him and asked me for some lessons on it on his boat – I felt a bit guilty – I wondered if I was wiping out traditional navigation methods - but with all the navigational hazards, even the locals need all the help they can get. He gave us some honey, pearls and fish in return. Another local invited us to join his family at church and took us surfing (which is a bit risky on a reef!). Despite our initial hesitation, navigating the islands is well worth the effort of getting around and getting into.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Anchor diving & collecting rainwater

Before leaving the Marquesas, we had some fun and also some drama: the drama was that the rope on our second anchor chaffed through on some coral. Luckily our friends Steven and Karen on Trade Secret were close to hand, so after Conor and Steven dived around for about an hour, Steven managed to locate the lost anchor and with the help of some local boys they pulled it up. A great success, as we'd hate to loose one. The fun bit was that this delayed our departure so we joined the village in their pre-bastille day celebrations on the evening of the 13th july. We had a great local dinner - the Marquesan usual: poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime & coconut milk), goat in coconut milk, cooked bananas, rice, salad - and then watched a dance performance. It was great fun, and interesting as the dancing is quite different to the dancing we saw on the other island. The village was v. small, maybe only about 15 houses, so the dancing and celebrations were very 'private' and not put on for the tourists. We have really made the most of the Marquesas, have now seen four islands and three of those where stops in small bays with small villages and only local people, no hotels or tourists, and even few other boats. We are learning a new skill of collecting rain water – a necessity as our tank was running low. In one night of torrential rain, we managed to get about 80+ litres, about 1/3 of our tank. The water is wonderful to wash with and tastes good. At the moment the canvas we've rigged to collect water collects the water in 20 litre basins – rather than directly into the tank, so our technique is still in need of improvement. Brendan is now on board, and we will head for the Tuamotus in the morning.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Tahuata & Ua Huka

After a week in Fatu Hiva, we sailed to Tahuata, the next island in the chain, about 5 hours sail. This island is v beautiful too, with very high cliffs covered in palm trees and amazing sandy beaches. we first stayed two nights at a small bay which had very good snorkelling - many colourful reef fish, sea turtles, and loads of dolphins. The dolphins came in to the bay to fish in the afternoon and stayed about 3 hours. It was fun to watch them dive and frolic so close to the boats and for such a long time. The only problem with the bay was that there were many many jelly fish – but we still swam, though Henri had some bites the following day. After two nights we moved north to the next bay which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in french polynesia – a favourite of the Hiscocks. It's got a fantastic white beach surrounded by green hills and palm trees. it's totally uninhabited. The snorkelling here was very good too, we swam with a huge manta ray - about 1.5m 'wing span' just under the boats.

Tonight we are going to sail to an island further north, Ua Huka, which is famous for it's semi-wild horses and populated by many many goats. i'm hoping we can get some fresh goat - one of the women we ate with in Fatu Hiva gave us some goat as a leaving present, and i cooked in as a thai curry in the pressure cooker, it was excellent, very tender and not to greasy. We will be in Nuku Hiva on Monday, as Brendan arrives on Tuesday.