Onward to the Tuamotus

Our 500 mile 72 hour trip to the Tuamotus was uneventful, except for a series of squalls. The first was the fiercest, packing winds in the low 40’s. Nancy is glad she slept through it.  This interlude did demonstrate that putting the storm plates back on the port side was a good idea, as this squall came from the port side. Putting the plates on was a bit of tour de force, as we no longer had Sean’s help.


We spent some time figuring out how to actually get the plates on, preferably without dropping one into Daniel’s Bay. We only had two to install, as we’d only removed the ones on the opening windows when we arrived in Nuku Hiva, to give us more ventilation. Then we still had the big dink, which has higher pontoons than the little one, so someone could stand on it and reach the top of windows. The little dink can’t manage that. So installing the windows meant lowering them down the side of the boat, using a block and tackle.



Once each plate was in place, Ron walked along the edge of the salon (Duet is a wide body, so we have no walkway on the port side, just a 3-4 inch ledge under the windows) and installed the upper bolts, while Nancy managed the block and tackle to keep the plate still. We have Sean to thank for the walking method, he demonstrated it when we removed the plates upon our arrival in Nuku Hiva.


The lower bolts were installed from the small dink. Initially, Nancy towed the dink up Duet’s port side, with Ron in it, and secured it, so Ron could have both hands free to put the bolts in. This didn’t work really well, as there was enough chop in Daniel’s Bay that every time Ron let go of Duet to do up a bolt, the dink went up, down and sideways. The bolts have to be lined up just so to work. To make matters worse, one of the plates we were installing has one bolt that is a little off, so it requires some serious jiggling to get it squared away. Given the conditions, jiggling was not in Ron’s repertoire that day.



So Nancy also got in the dink, after tying off the window to the boat deck rail, as a backup just in case. The problem with this is then there was no one to then tow the dink alongside the boat, and there are few handholds there. Fortunately, the flopper pole was deployed on that side, so we used it for leverage to get the dink most of the way forward to the subject window. Nancy then lassoed the base of the pole with the dink bow line and pulled us into position, after we tied off the stern.


We can’t imagine what this looked like to the other boats in the anchorage, but we can say that it worked, the plates were securely on, no one got hurt and, almost as importantly, given the state of the water, no one fell in, nor did we sink a plate. It did take most of a day to do, and it was pretty hot, so beers were issued earlier than usual that night.


Our trip from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus and our cruising on Tahanea are depicted in the following video.  The blog text describes our experiences in more detail.


Cruising Tahanea


We were bound for the Tahanea Atoll in the Tuamotus, which is an uninhabited national park. We arrived at the pass right on time, which was good. One of the tricks to the Tuamotus is managing the passes, they are narrow and the current can flow quickly. We’ve seen this before in BC and Alaska, but in the Tuamotus there is no current information. It turned out that our C-Map charts were quite accurate as far as the tides go, but it took us some time to figure that out. We had time, waiting in the Marquesas, so by the time we left we were pretty confident with our timing at this first pass. That said, it was nice to see a calm entrance when we arrived. Tahanea is one of the easier passes in the Tuamotus, it is straight, deep and oriented NE, as is Tahanea. We had winds and seas from the SE.


The night we came into the Tuamotu Archipelago was a bit squally, but between the radar and the charts we did OK.  The charts were spot on with trafficked atolls, but not so good with those that aren’t visited.  Fortunately the radar doesn’t know the difference, so it got every one.  Most of the targets in the shot below are squalls, but one may be an atoll.  Atolls don’t move, and have a characteristic shape.  


As an aside, on this trip we have also been using Google Earth satellite pictures, as a backup to the chart. A kind Nordhavn owner explained to us how to load these, which we do with a fast connection when we are home. Coastal Explorer can display a split screen with the C-Map chart on one side and the satellite photo on the other, so you can see where the boat is in real time against both the chart and the photo. This is quite helpful, unless there happens to be a lot of cloud cover when satellite passes overhead.


We have found the C-Map charts to be quite accurate so far in the South Pacific. We also run Navionics on Nancy’s iPad. These charts turn out to better detail on the coral heads inside the Tuamotu Atolls than the C-Maps do, more on this below.


After entering the pass with no drama, we anchored in an area recommended by the Compendium, just to the west of the pass. There were several boats there. We did some boat chores and generally had a quiet day. The next day we were pondering the weather and where to go, as one of the disadvantages in any atoll in the Tuamotus is that you have to move around to gain shelter from whatever wind is blowing. We were on the eastern side of the atoll and the wind was projected to come around to SSE. We therefore needed to move south or west, or both, to tuck in.


As we were chatting about this the VHF radio called our name. It turned out to be friends of friends of friends. In one of those classic cruising situations, we had met a very nice gentleman on the CUBAR rally several years earlier. It turns our his brother has been cruising the South Pacific for several years. He introduced us and we had been corresponding by email. Chuck knew where we were, and he had some friends who were also in Tahanea, so they called us. Chuck and Linda are also the authors of Jacaranda Journey, which provides the Cruising Compendiums, as well as a lot of other valuable information for cruising the South Pacific.


To make a long story short, we traveled westward across the atoll to join Roger and Sasha on their sailboat Ednbal. The journey was interesting, as the interiors of the atolls are not charted, or at least not on C-Maps. We later found out from Roger and Sasha that the Navionics charts on Nancy’s iPad are a much better source of info, but at the time we eyeballed the 8 mile trip.


The Navionics chart shown below is oriented with North up.  Waypoint #3 is just outside the pass.  We anchored south and east of it inside the atoll.  Waypoint #7 is where we met Ednbal and Waypoint #26 is another possible anchorage further south.  All the “spots” on the charts are coral heads.  



In the small world category, the charts below are from Nordhavn 52 Dirona’s blog.  She anchored in almost literally the same place Duet did in Tahanea. James and Jennifer have been very helpful to us during our South Pacific planning.  This was an anchorage we didn’t want to miss, based on their comments when they stayed there.

Dirona’s route across the atoll.  Note that the charts shown below are C-Maps, which have far less detail on the interior of the atoll than do the Navionics chart shown above. 


Anchoring behind the “zed” as it is known locally


The key to managing this kind of crossing safely is to have the sun above or behind you, with preferably not too much cloud or any squalls. We made it across unscathed. The coral heads are very easy to see in the right light, but harder to see without it. This can be a little disconcerting when a squall rolls in as you are moving from one place to another. We would sit in one place until the light improved, on one trip from one anchorage to another we went halfway, then turned around and went the next day, as the light just wasn’t good enough. The Tuamotus are a long way from anywhere, and hitting a large coral head isn’t something we want to do there, or anywhere, for that matter.


In addition to finding your way around the coral heads in the Tuamotus, you also anchor among them. It is quite easy to get the anchor chain tangled in the coral, in which case you hope you can somehow get it untangled by maneuvering the boat, or you are going to have dive on it. Since we don’t carry a tank (we will be adding one in Tahiti) we worried about this a bit. The way to avoid getting tangled, or at least not get all your chain tangled, is to buoy the chain, so it floats above the coral, rather than winding through it. This also protects the coral and, since there isn’t a whole lot of coral left in the world, we wanted to do our best not to damage it.


The diagram below was taken from an article in Yachting World.  In it several buoys are used.  We decided that several buoys would be too complex to deal with in an emergency, so we are only using one.  This does mean that our chain will lay over some, hopefully low, coral, a long way from the boat.  The general idea is to be able to recover that chain without getting stuck or damaging the coral.  We can control the retrieval pretty well in anything but very bumpy weather. 



After some experimentation, and useful advice from Roger and Sasha, we have figured out how to buoy Duet’s chain, although our procedure is by no means perfect. We use our largest ball fender, deployed about 50 feet from the boat. We want to keep at least some of the chain above the coral, so it can’t wrap around a coral head close to the boat as Duet moves around her anchor. With the buoy 50 feet from Duet’s bow, about 80 feet of the chain is lifted up by the fender.  If we are anchored in less than 50 feet of water we will have a maximum of about 150 feet of chain out, with about 70 feet of chain laying in the sand or across the coral.   Normally Duet doesn’t pull on that section of the chain at all, unless it is extremely windy.  


The picture below shows our big buoy, rising ghostlike from the depths, in the evening when the wind has died and the chain has slacked enough to let it come to the surface.  When there is much breeze at all Duet is pulling on the chain and the buoy remains 4-6 feet below the surface.  In the moonlight, you can see it floating serenely underwater, which is rather cool.



The whole idea behind buoying the chain is not to lose the chain catenary. Catenary is the curve, or lazy loop, formed by the chain as it hangs between the anchor and the boat. The catenary is the result of the chain’s weight. The boat has to pull pretty hard on it to straighten it out, so it creates a shock absorber when the seas build and the boat starts to bounce up and down. If you lose the catenary by getting the chain tangled around a coral head, however, the boat will be pulling on the coral head, rather than on the heavy length of lazy chain and/or the anchor itself. 


Without catenary you put a lot more strain on everything if the waves get bigger. A chain snubber (line between the chain and the attachment point of the chain on the boat, so the boat is pulling on the line, not directly on the chain, which has no stretch) helps considerably with this, but we’d rather have both the catenary and the snubber working for us. Worst case, if we do get stuck in rough weather, we plan to let out more chain, with another buoy, rather than struggle to get unstuck in poor conditions. So, when we anchor, we try to leave room around Duet to drop more chain, should we need to.  


As an aside, none of the anchorages we have seen in the Tuamotus are free of shallow coral heads.  So, when you anchor, you need to take the boat’s swinging circle into account, to avoid hitting a shallow head when she turns.  If you also plan to have more room to drop chain if necessary, you have to position the boat in the center of a pretty large area with no shallow coral heads.  This is even harder than it sounds.  


We have managed to get stuck, and unstuck, twice so far, from low coral. We are only anchoring in areas recommended as having little coral and we are staying shallow water of well less than 50 feet. Ron is very careful to put on the bigger snubber to take the load off the windlass (it will stretch whereas the chain will yank) when we maneuver the boat to get the chain loose. So far so good.


We now snorkel the anchor as soon as we can, to see if we are already stuck, to check on the set of the hook and to survey the general area in case we need to drop more chain. It is important to remember that, if we have to drop more chain, it will always be in the middle of the night, so it helps to have a good sense of where everything is in daylight first. Also, if the anchor hits a coral head on the way down, it can get tangled, but still feel like it’s hooked when you pull on it. Given Duet’s weight, she will probably break the coral in rough conditions, which would leave us dragging. So we’d rather raise the hook immediately and know the anchor is well set the second time (or the third, or the fourth….) than find out that we are dragging, which also always occurs in the middle of the night.


We are made even more cautious by a recent tale of an experienced skipper who got caught in an unexpected blow and lost his catenary in deep water when his chain wrapped around a coral head. He was in pretty tight quarters, so he couldn’t let out more chain, which would have solved the problem, albeit temporarily. His windlass ripped partially loose from his deck while he was recovering his anchor, but recover it he did.


Anyway, when we arrived at our new anchorage at the “zed” on the other side of Tahanea, it turned out that Roger and Sasha’s refrigeration was on the blink, so we offered space in ours while they fixed it. This was the beginning of a nice cruising interlude, which we much enjoy.  They proved to be a fount of local knowledge about which atolls to visit, how to catch a coconut crab, how to ship parts into French Polynesia, where to provision, etc. They even hosted two beach BBQs, which were very special events. Roger and Sasha have been living aboard for 11 years, starting the in the US, then the Med, then the Caribbean and now French Polynesia, where they have been for 2 years. They are headed home to Australia this summer.


Roger, in a impressive show of electrical skill, repaired their refrigeration by soldering a new capacitor, cannibalized from an old video screen, into the control unit. Friends of theirs also brought a new control unit from the next atoll over, and we met them when we all moved east again to avoid more weather. Nice folks from Sitka, Alaska, with beautiful custom steel sailboat built in New Zealand. He was a general surgeon, so, as Roger said, all he and Ron needed was a patient. Fortunately, none showed up, so we weren’t forced to improvise an operating room in Duet’s cockpit.  We had some great times together telling cruising stories instead.


We much enjoyed Roger and Sasha’s company. The beach BBQs, in particular, were spectacular. There is no light pollution in Tahanea, and we had the additional advantage of a full moon. The beauty is hard to describe and pictures don’t do it justice. The colors are like a Disney Technicolor shot, and the moon reflecting into the crystal clear water, so you can see 20 feet down to the gleaming sand, made the evenings quite memorable. We’ve not seen anything like it before.


To trap a coconut crab, you need an open coconut, tied to a tree so the crab doesn’t haul it off.  The crabs can grow to 4 kilos (9 pounds) and have serious claws.  Roger taught Ron how to grab them from behind, and, while we didn’t catch any big ones, Roger and Sasha did several days later, so we got to eat them anyway.


Coconut crab, courtesy of Wikipedia.



Tempting cracked coconut, carefully secured.

Ron and Roger setting up the BBQ

Crowded beach for our BBQ

BBQ fire, made of coconuts and coconut husks


All ready to go

It wouldn’t be boating without the odd project, so Ron tightened up the main engine mounts, one of which had come a bit loose on the long crossing. He also did the usual oil changes and, wonder of wonders, read several fiction books. Ron reading fiction is something that Nancy hasn’t seen in over 20 years. She was thrilled to see him relaxing that much.


Ron cuts Nancy’s hair, but for some reason she isn’t allowed to cut his.

Visiting booby.  There are large numbers of birds, including boobies, nesting on Tahanea, and they aren’t afraid of people.  We hope it stays that way.

Weather is difficult to come by here in French Polynesia. Much of it is in French, which we don’t speak. Not only that, but there is only a small population here, so there isn’t the demand for sophisticated weather products, as there is in the US or Canada, for example. Also, there is no internet, so everything has to come via email on the Iridium GO. We used a translated version of the local French forecast, which is good for 24 hours, as well as GRIB files via both Saildocs and PredictWind. Even so, we decided to work with our weather router, OMNI Bob, again for the short 36 hour journey to Tahiti. He had been very helpful on choosing our window from the Marqusas and so he proved again.

Roger, Sasha and Ron reviewing the weather

Similar to the Marquesas, we ended up waiting nearly a week for a window. At this time of the year, which is the Southern Hemisphere winter, the storms from the Southern Ocean make their impact felt even this far north. So we were waiting for a series of southern fronts, and their associated winds and seas, to pass, before we could go. It is similar to the fronts we experienced in the Bahamas, which were driven by weather in North America. Of course, waiting for a weather window at Tahanea wasn’t exactly hard duty, we had friends to spend time with, boat projects to do and fantastic sunsets to view. Our brief time in the Tuamotus gave us a taste of how beautiful they can be. We shall definitely return in the fall.   


Moonrise over Tahanea




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