The Tuamotus Archipelago

Very ‘South Pacific’

Before leaving the Marquesas, we needed to decide which of the atolls we would visit.  There are 72 of these atolls spread over several hundred miles, from east to west, and they are conveniently located to break the passage to Tahiti.  Originally known as the Dangerous Archipelago, because they are only a few feet above sea level, with the advent of GPS and electronic charting, they are safer to visit than before.  Two of the atolls are famous in different ways. Mururoa is notorious for French nuclear bomb testing and Raroia is where the Kon Tiki raft was stranded at the end of her voyage in 1947.

Some friends went further west to Mahini and Ahe, some went further east to Raroia.  In company with Heribert and Hildegard on Wasabi we decided to go Kauehi and then Fakarava, located to the east of the western end of the chain.

These islands are a stark contrast to the volcanic and mountainous Marquesas. They are nothing more than coral atolls, so our anchorages have been inside lagoons, surrounded by intermittent “motus”; small sandy coconut covered islands, and varying degrees of coral reef between them.

The lagoons of the Tuamotus vary in size and depth and some are over 50 miles long. They are entered through passes, a small break in the coral fringing each lagoon. The passes vary in ease of passage, with some being dangerous, and others with plenty of width and depth.  The problem is that whilst the tidal range is small, the sheer size of the lagoons means that in almost all cases, the current flow can be alarming and quite dangerous, so it is important to arrive at slack water.  Even then after rough weather there can be a constant outflow of water, because of water finding its way in over the reefs on the windward side.

Having delayed our departure from Ua-Pou because of strong winds, we had an uneventful 500nm passage to Kauehi, the interesting part was to ensure our arrival not later than 0900 so as to traverse the pass at slack water, so in the last 24 hours we were frequently adjusting our sails to speed up or slow down.  After 3 days we arrived at 0830, and followed Wasabi in through the pass, at one point only making 1.6 knots over the ground against the outflow of water.  The wind was forecast to swing to the south east and increase in strength, so we made our way to the village, 9 miles away, in a channel that was happily devoid of coral heads.

Village church from anchorage

It was Ascension Day, and once we had cleared up and everything was stowed, we went ashore.  It was like a ghost village, and apart from one or two people, everybody was indoors out of view.  We were immediately struck by how neat and tidy the village was, with all the roads and tracks swept clean of rubbish or even leaves from the trees.  We walked through the coconut palms to the windward side, where the Pacific waves were crashing on the reef, and visited the cemetery on the way back, and saw a large number of children’s graves, the result of an epidemic some 50 years ago, when there was insufficient medical help to contain the problem.  Today there is a full time nurse who can handle most cases, and they fly in a doctor from Tahiti for anything she cannot handle.

Windward scene

We were joined in the lagoon by Abora, with Ellen and Wolfgang on board from Heidelberg.  We had also moved anchorage to obtain better protection from the strong south easterly winds, which after a period of eerie calm arrived and continued for 5 days, we soon let out another 30 metres of anchor chain!  In the sunshine though the blue hues were staggering. So was the tranquillity and calm.  We had not been on such an even keel since Shelter Bay before our Panama transit – that was in February!  Snorkelling was also on the agenda one afternoon … here some underwater shots:

Clammed up!

Threadfin butterflyfish (Chaetodon auriga) **

Sharksucker or remora attached to Pipistrelle’s hull!

The biggest industry in the Tuamotus is pearl farming.  In Kauehi there used to be over 70 farms, but today there are just 4, with one owned by Flic, a shaven headed Polynesian entrepreneur, owning the largest farm.  He is also the Mayor of the ‘commune’, owns the village store, the Kauehi Lodge for guests wanting a break from modern day life, and is also building other waterside properties.  His demeanour is of Mr Big!

The team, Flic and pre-lunch coconut drinks

We arranged a visit to his pearl farm, some 9kms away near the airport.  Transport was on the back of a pick-up lorry, in which he casually placed two wooden benches for us to sit on.  After a stop at a building site where he gave instructions for the removal of 2 x 70ft high coconut palms, a JCB digger simply pushed them over, we arrived at the pearl farm.  He seemed unconcerned with us, maybe he was more occupied with the Judge from Tahiti who accompanied us in the comfort of the cab with his assistant.  We than had a mad dash back to the dock where the Judge departed by dinghy to a military ship, which was waiting to convey him to another atoll.

3 men in a truck – hanging on in there!

Eventually we were back at the pearl farm, where Elaine did a sterling job of translating from French to English to German, in an attempt to explain the pearl growing process which takes 18 months, from the laying of “collectors” (ropes 6 metres long) to which pearl larvae attach themselves.  At some point the shells are cleaned, and then put back into the lagoon to continue their growth.  They also have other pearls inserted within the shells which grow for a further 12 months, to achieve a larger size.  Eventually a technician arrives to open a harvest of shells and sort them for sale in Tahiti.  This takes place every 6 weeks or so, and Flic sells about 100,000 each year.

Pearl farm building

Later in the afternoon we watched a boules competition, we were expected to provide our own boules, we expected to be lent some!  With an end in sight to the high winds, we made our exit for Fakarava, some 30nm distant.

The passage out though the pass was benign by comparison to our entry, and we were soon achieving 7-8 knots under headsail alone.

Fakarava is only 35nm from Kauehi.  It used to be the administration centre for the Tuamotus, and so we found a modern concrete dock, and the Mairie and other facilities including a boulangerie and supermarche close at hand.  There are two passes, one in the south east facing the trade winds and so therefore dangerous, and the north-west pass, wide and deep.  Once anchored  we found ourselves next to Jan and Monica from Blue Dame, and the following day joined them on a visit to the Dream Pearl Farm.  When we were collected in a new air conditioned minibus, as opposed to the back of a lorry, we realized that this was a professionally run organisation.  The total start to finish of the pearl farming operation was explained to us, together with details of how they alter the colour of a pearl.  We finished up in a show room, where their stock of pearls was on display, at wholesale prices.

Sunset in Fakarava

Our friends Jane & John were by this time in Tahiti, some 270 nm miles away, involving two nights at sea.  So having wished Heribert on Wasabi a happy birthday, and said goodbye to our other friends, we left through the pass an hour late, with 5 knots of current with us.  Because the bad weather delayed most people in the area, we found that 15 yachts had left Toao for Tahiti, including our friends on Oceans Dream.  Happily we had a head start, but the problem was trying to slow Pipistrelle down enough so we did not arrive in the middle of the night.  We finished up with 2 reefs in the main, and no headsail, and as soon as we got into the lee of Tahiti, which is mountainous, the wind died.  We were the first yacht to enter the harbour, and had to cross each end of the airport runway having first gained permission from Port Control.  We then watched 6 man racing canoes practising for competitions which are always taking place.  In this case having completed a circuit, the entire crew jumped overboard, and the new crew, who were already in the water, climbed aboard and were off!

Team practice

Jane and John joined us almost as soon as we were anchored, and shortly afterwards we managed to secure a berth in Taina Marina, and our sails were collected for repair the next day.

Papeete – anchorage off Taina Marina

We will stay in Papeete until all the repairs are completed, before continuing our journey through the Society Islands, onto the Cook Islands and then Tonga and New Zealand.  During this time we will post short blogs via our satphone, until we next find a good internet connection.

** Footnote: with thanks to our friend Oliver Straub who kindly provided the correct English and Latin names.


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