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.




The Marquesas – Nuku-Hiva

I departed the island of Tahuata mid afternoon on 9th May for an overnight sail to Nuku-Hiva, the principal island of the Marquesas. A nice breeze funnelled down the channel between Hiva-Oa and Tahuata providing nice sailing for a couple of hours but once in the wind shadow of the big island Fathom slowed to a crawl. Several squall clouds approached overnight but the wind gradually faded away to a gentle puff and the motor was needed to cover the final miles to Baie de Taiohae. A pretty scene in the morning as the sun rose in the east, a pink moon set in the west alongside the jagged peaks on the island of Ua Pou.

Soon after setting sail it was clear that something was up with my right foot. It had been a little sore in the morning but by evening I couldn’t put any weight on it and was stumbling about the boat. In order to get some rest overnight I took some ibuprofen and supported my foot on top of the lee cloth. It became clear that my foot had been infected through the open blister picked up on the hike a couple days before. I had been careless by not keeping it cleaned with antiseptic and covering it. Asking for trouble in the tropics.

The anchor went down just before lunch in Baie de Taiohae and I caught up with friends ashore that evening. The next morning my foot had swollen up and it was not a pretty site. Luckily Nuku-Hiva is the only island in the Marquesas with a hospital and after walking up from the harbour I was seen quickly by a French doctor who told me the infection was spreading up my leg and if I had left it untreated another 48 hours anitbiotics via an intravenous drip would have been required! My foot was cleaned up, 15 days of antibiotics prescribed and I received a telling off for taking ibuprofen and not paracetamol as the former apparently inhibits the bodies immune system in fighting the infection. I had antibiotics onboard and would have taken them had I not been close to the hospital.

Not being able to swim or wear shoes restricted my activities over the next couple of weeks. It was around this time that I began to notice small little creatures crawling about the boat and every passing day there seemed to be more. It got so bad that when I took a book down from the shelf and opened it up I could see little things crawling inside. Time to investigate! Every cupboard and locker I looked in seemed to house these creatures. What a disaster! It was when I looked in the cupboard under the chart table that the cause became apparent. I had forgotten about a bag of flour purchased in Panama. It had been pushed to the back and the ziplock bag not closed properly. It was now home to a huge community of weevils and flour mites and their resultant breeding programme. The infestation had become so bad that they had spread to any food item on the boat containing oats or wheat and infected all my pasta and spaghetti. It took four long days to remove every item from every cupboard and locker, clean, disinfect and put back. I dumped a lot of food but found someone local who agreed to freeze all the pasta and spaghetti for four days to kill anything inside. I couldn’t bear throwing it all away Nothing wrong with a bit of extra protein right? Lesson learned – all flour, oats, pasta, lentils etc is now in sealable glass jars 🙂

After the weevil cleansing programme was complete Chris on Vancouver 28 ‘Sea Bear’ turned up in the anchorage. It was good to finally meet him and we keenly inspected each others boats. Interesting that the layout of Sea Bear is quite different to Fathom internally with a larger starboard bunk and more shelving around the quarter berth. I met some other interesting cruisers in the anchorage incuding Rupert and his wife Judy. Rupert came alongside one day offering some fruit and after we got chatting discovered that he had grown up in Seaview on the Isle of Wight. I messaged Mum to see if she had known him and it turns out they went to the same school and she remembers going to a party at his house in the 1960’s! It really is a small world.

After the foot and weevil débâcle I thought my run of bad news was over. But after walking round the deck of Fathom with Chris he commentated on the depression in the deck plinth under the mast step. This had been present since I purchased the boat and I had keeping an eye on it but it was now significantly worse. The mast step has sunk further into the deck, a little more on the starboard side, so that the mast heel fitting is rubbing away where it is touching the mast step at an unusual angle. I can feel movement when the boat is going through a seaway. The mast step is also now bowed but with no signs of stress cracking yet. The mast needs to come down, the plinth grinded open, plywood support investigated and likely renewed then re-glassed. It cannot wait until New Zealand or Australia. I hope to get Fathom hauled at a boatyard in Raiatea in late June or early July.

My 34th birthday was spent with Anny and Carl on yacht Muse and they even baked me a chocolate cake. Hard to believe it is a decade since I celebrated my 24th birthday on yacht Babelfish sailing to Tahiti from Hawaii. Seems like yesterday. Wonder if I will be back in the South Pacific for my 44th!

Before leaving Baie de Taiohae I was keen to visit for the first time the vegetable market that runs twice a week at 04.00. That is not a typo it really is that early for some reason i’ve yet to discover. Apart from carrots and potatoes, vegetables are just about impossible to find in the shops in the Marquesas but I was told the best chance of finding anything, including juicy red tomatoes (a real luxury here), is this market. I pulled up alongside yacht Waterhoen in the dinghy at 03.50 last Saturday morning to pick up Adva but on arrival at the market we were told there were no tomatoes as there had been too much rain. Our disappointment was helped somewhat by finding some eggplant and cucumbers. The wait for red tomatoes continues and anticipation grows by the day.

The last task before heading to the Tuamotus was to fill the water tanks. The water is not potatable in Baie de Taiohae so I visited stunning Daniels Bay a few miles along the coast, the setting for a few episodes of the Survivor TV series. In order to fill the water jugs I had to take the dinghy into the next inlet from the anchorage and 100 yards up a river where I tied up to a tree and was met by a local Paul. He directed me to the tap and provided a large fruit basket in exchange for a few dollars. Unfortunately after taking 100 litres the water went muddy so the next day I went back along the coast to Controller Bay in convoy with friends on yacht Vega. Here we finished collecting water and spent the afternoon walking to the local village. A nice evening was spent on Vega before setting sail for the Tuamotus the next morning, 29th May.