The Tuamotus – Toau & Apataki
I couldn’t have wished for better conditions on departure from Nuku-Hiva on 29th May bound for the Tuamotus. 15-17kts of breeze on the beam, swell under 1.5m and not a squall cloud in sight. Fathom was in her element and despite not pushing, over the first three days we covered 133, 135 and 130nm. Not bad considering she has been in the water since March 2016 and the underwater hull has not been cleaned since. 138nm remains the record 24hr run achieved on passage from Portugal to Madeira back in September. The new fishing lure proved quite popular and within a couple of hours of leaving I pulled in a Barracuda but threw it back due to the risk of it carrying the toxin Ciguatera. An hour later a yellow fin tuna took the hook and subsequently provided a tasty dinner for the next couple nights. A perfect size for the solo sailor with no waste.
I was a little anxious about sailing alone to the Tuamotus, an ocean oasis of reefs, palm trees, pearls, fish and sharks but didn’t want to miss it. The archipelago of 77 coral atolls lies 530nm south west of the Marquesas and about 200nm north east of Tahiti. In pre GPS days they were commonly referred to as the dangerous archipelago because any navigational error would likely have serious consequences and result in being wrecked on a reef. Even now with GPS the charts are not so accurate in places and many sailors decide to bypass the area because there are still plenty of obstacles to catch out the complacent. Each atoll comprises a large fringing reef marked by a few tiny sandy islets called Motus. These barely rise above sea level and therefore the atolls are hard to spot until only a few miles away. Within the reef is a lagoon with many unmarked coral heads (bommies). There are normally one or two passes through the reef into the lagoon and depending on the state of tide water flows in and out of the lagoon at speeds of up to 8 knots. The pass therefore needs to be entered at slack water to avoid standing waves and overfalls but none of the sources of tide times agree with each other. Quite a bit to think about without crew to help.
To make life easier I decided to head for the atoll of Toau first. At the north west side is a false pass into the reef called Anse Aymot, a one off in the Tuamotus. As it does not break into the lagoon there are no currents to worry about and it can be entered at any state of tide. Progress had been so good from Nuku-Hiva that I was close to making Toau within daylight on the 4th day out but as the wind was forecast to drop didn’t want to risk arriving after dark. That night I hove to and let Fathom drift south at 1 knot while I slept. The next day the tradewinds had disappeared so the engine was required for the final 20 miles. I threw the fishing line out in hope because I had never caught a fish before under motor. I was amazed an hour later when the line went bar tight so slowed the boat and battled to pull in whatever was fighting me at the other end. Eventually I could see it was a very good sized yellow fin tuna which I estimated to be in excess of 1m. Just as I was pulling it up over the pushpit it made a final bid for freedom and the swivel connecting the metal leader to the line exploded and it escaped. I am still in mourning as it would have provided a meal for everyone on the atoll that evening.
My visit to Toau definitely goes down as one of the highlights of my voyage so far. Only five people live there, Gaston and his wife Valentine, her nephew and a couple who live on a separate motu within the reef. They work very hard to get by and live off the land. Gaston and Valentine are renowned for welcoming yachtsman and often cook up a lobster feast for hungry sailors. Unfortunately I had missed the feast by one day but after rowing ashore got talking with them and was immediately offered a glass of their ridiculously strong home brew beer. This broke the ice and I later rowed back to the boat and returned with coffee, a bottle of rum and lemons for them. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking rum and listening to their favourite music from my ipod connected to Gaston’s portable speaker, a gift from a visiting yacht some years ago. Their favourites were Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and Gaston played along with his home-made one string bass and there was some bottle and spoons accompaniment too. A Swedish couple later joined with another bottle of rum… How surreal to be socialising with such a small isolated community on a remote atoll in the middle of the South Pacific while listening to Jolene and Ring of Fire on full blast!
The next day was a Sunday and despite not being religious, thought it would be nice to witness their church service. They have made a make shift church in a building behind their sleeping quarters and at 10am I turned up with a Norwegian couple making a total of 6 people. On entering the room we sat around for 15 minutes as Valentine struggled to tune her Ukele and in the end she gave up as it sounded so bad. Some songs were then sang acapella, regularly interrupted by Valentine wacking Gaston with the bible when he went off key. Nice upbeat songs similar to the church service in the Marquesas. We were all then instructed to read several passages from the bible in turn and Valentine told us Jesus would be paying earth a visit next year. Some more songs were sung and afterwards Valentine picked up her Ukele again for a final attempt at tuning. This time it immediately sounded perfect and she looked up at the ceiling and proclaimed that it had been tuned by the angels!
The next stop was the neighbouring atoll of Apataki where my friends on yachts Danika and Waterhoen were already anchored. In order to get the morning slack water I left Toau at 4am and motored in a calm conditions the 15 miles to the pass at Apataki. My timing was good and 1 knot of tide took Fathom through into the lagoon without drama. Phew. It was then a 10 mile trip across the atoll, dodging a couple of coral heads, to the anchorage off the carenage (small boatyard). The following four days were spent with John, Oceana and Alice from ‘Danika’ and Alfred and Adva from ‘Waterhoen’. The only three yachts at the anchorage. The others had already befriended a local called Tony who runs the carenage and we enjoyed his generous hospitality. He invited us to eat freshly caught fish with his friends and family ashore on several occasions and demonstrated how to make coconut cream. His grandma also did my laundry. Anchored in turquoise water off a palm tree fringed white beach was probably the closest to paradise I have ever found. We snorkelled with black tip sharks and drank beers on the beach as the sun set. My only wish is that I had taken more photos.
After unwinding our anchor chains from some bommies Waterhoen and Fathom exited the pass at Apataki on Friday 9th and headed south west for Tahiti. It was nice to sail with a “buddy boat” for a change, the two small yachts, 28 and 31 feet, seemingly a rarity in the Pacific where 40 foot catamarans and 50 foot monohulls are the norm these days. Fathom struggled to keep up in the very light downwind conditions but we remained in VHF contact the whole time. After 2 days on passage both boats rounded the southern tip of Tahiti before sunset on the 11th June. I went alongside Waterhoen and Adva passed across dinner, my kind of takeaway! Late evening we drifted up the coast for a few hours in the lee of Tahiti before bashing into headwinds and swell on the west coast during the wee small hours, sleep non existent that night. As the sun rose the next morning we entered the pass and headed up the west coast of the island, past the airport where I had to call up and ask for permission for us to motor along the end of the runway between flights, and tied up at the marina in the centre of Papeete. After months of remote anchorages and sleepy villages it was a nice change to be in a bustling city with, amongst other things, a big selection of vegetables including the previously elusive red tomatoes. Amazing what I get excited about these days.