Journal 14 -Tuamotus Ahe and Rangiroa


LAT: 14 DEG 27 S/146 22 W

We left Daniel’s Bay, Marquesas with just a little trepidation: weather reports had
indicated “rough seas, winds 19-22 knots, gusts to 25”. While that’s not a forecast to
generate concern, we were a little “gun-shy” not having sailed for several months and
were still not in the best of health.  So, we trimmed the DREAMCATCHER down, with no
mizzen and a double-reefed main, along with our favourite 94 headsail and headed out of
the turbulent pass to the open ocean.  On a stunning blue-sky morning, we set our course
to the southwest, and after the initial bumpy seas, settled down to a civilized moderate
swell with 12-15 knots of wind.  The rest of that first day was a “pussy-cat”.   We were on
our way to the Tuamotos, the “dangerous archipelago” and we had 500 miles in front of
us to landfall at the pass entry of Ahe atoll.

It was good to be back at sea again.  The next five days proved to be some of the best
sailing we have experienced.  On the dawn of the second day, the wind had died down to
8 knots…we flopped around in the light air for a couple of hours and discussed running
the spinnaker sheets – these only go on, along with the spinnaker, in wind conditions
under 15 knots, and we had deliberately left them out of our pre-passage set up due to
the robust forecast we had received.  By the time we’d finished our discussion about
putting up the “kite”, the wind kicked up to 18 knots, making that discussion and its
resultant decision, irrelevant.  For the next 5 days, the wind rarely dropped below 16, with
the average being 18 with frequent 22-24 knot breezes.  It was a terrific passage –
DREAMCATCHER turned in one 148 mile day despite being double reefed with no
mizzen: we had wind in the 20 knot range, with moderate seas all that day and a boat
speed of between 6.5 and 7.5 knots – not bad for an old lady!  Jack was back – our
autopilot who had gone AWOL mid Pacific, and we used him, but sparingly, not wanting
to give up the thrill of helming a sailboat under perfect conditions.

Again, we used the radio nets avidly: enroute, we discovered a new net: the
“PolyNeedsYa” net, based around the Tuamotos.  An informal radio net, it proffered
information on tides, winds, entry passes to the atolls and other trivia of interest to boats
passaging in the French Polynesian region. Following this net was Gary’s net: the sailing
vessel “Almaden Light” from Raietea Fr Polynesia, who provides a useful roll-call/check
in service and weather information from eastern Australia through to the Marquesas.  We
were able to contact several vessels via these nets, including Dave on Speranza who
was in the final throes of Marquesan exit.

Our daylight routine started with the radio nets, then breakfast, various boat chores, lunch,
reading, napping, email, dinner then the night shift.  We have become very disciplined
about night watches: 3 hrs on/3 hrs off.  2 hrs if it’s rough.  Daytime watches tend to be a
bit more “loosey goosey”, when we swap out the helm position every hour or so, taking
turns to nap or read etc.

On leaving the Marquesas we had been gifted one hand of bananas (probably about 6
doz of the yellow fruit) by the hotel manager, and on departure, another from Jocelyn, our
tour guide! So, we had about 50lbs bananas aboard – we chose to keep them so we
could give them to the locals in the Tuamotos, knowing they had no fruit there.  However,
with the warmth and our delayed departure, the banana ripening process marched on
relentless, and despite our attempts to scoff them down by the dozen (many, many of
Henry’s banana flambe’s were consumed)…the remaining dozens ripened into a black
mess at the same time and had to be dispatched overboard.  Luckily, they’d been
residing on the shower floor in the spare bathroom and the resultant ooze was easy to
clean up.  They did bring aboard some alternate life though, and we’ve been squishing
ants ever since!

Our primary concern when passaging is weather.  We now have several excellent
sources for this information: our dedicated weather fax machine which gives us the big
picture of surface, high level, sea state wind/wave information, email downloads from
Nadi (in Fiji), Bob McDavitt (Met Service New Zealand), Grib Files (wind indicator charts)
and the Polynaise Françoise bulletins.  The latter have been the most reliable in this
region, even for we non-French speakers…. We’re on the lookout for words “mer agitee”
(rough seas) and rafales (gusts)…it helps that we have a French cheat-sheet of
meteorological terms….but the wind speed predictions from them have been the most
accurate we’ve seen. So, we’re able to have deep and meaningful conversations with
French Meteorologists but no-one else!   Enroute, the Nadi forecast put us dead in the
middle of the SPCZ (South Pacific Convergence Zone)….any convergence zone is about
as desirable as a New York underground station at midnight: essentially a collision of
wind systems, always in the tropical latitudes, that results in convection: black-bottomed
clouds with rising puffy tops that flatten out during night and herald wind, rain, thunder and
lightning.   While we were amidst all these symptoms, the only element we got was wind
and the odd bit of rain.  The wind powered us along, all of it from the right direction
(halleluliah!!) and we completed our 500 miles with only a 1.6 mile track error….which
requires little interpretation for sailors and landlubbers:  “right on target” covers it.  As it
turns out, this achievement didn’t matter.  Our 500 mile waypoint put a conservative 30
mile margin between us and the coral reef that was Ahe atoll.  We slowed the boat down
to come within 15 miles of the reef at which point we had to stop and wait for daylight to
proceed any further and to co-incide with slack tide so we could enter the tidal pass at
Ahe.   It turned out we had to heave-to (stop the boat) for a tedious 8 hours as we sat and
waited out the night so that we could proceed with our daylight approach that would co-
incide with the high tide slack.  It took about 15 minutes to get the boat into a comfortable
heave-to position, pointed away from the reef then we snugged down for the night, still
watch-keeping as we drifted away from our destination at about 1.5 knots/hr in 20 knots
of wind. Disappointing for the sailor who has been rocketing along at 6 knots for the
previous 5 days!  All the time, we had the atoll up on radar and kept a vigilant watch on
our position and relationship to it.

When dawn came we got under way and motor sailed to the pass entry.  It was clear and
easy to see once we got close enough and at 30 mins after high tide, we poked our nose
in under full throttle and crossed from the ocean into the lagoon over some mildly turbulent
water.   The lagoon was peaceful, dotted with many buoys marking pearl oyster shell
seeding lines.  We followed the red/green markers with great diligence with GT up the
mast atop the sail with eyes peeled for the many coral heads that lie submerged in the
lagoon.  We had no problems and saw several yacht masts 2 miles ahead in the
anchorage area, occupied the spot of a departing boat and became the newest of 3
yachts in the small bright blue lake.

The TUAMOTOS is a mid Pacific archipelago of 77 atolls stretched out over 1500 miles.  
The atolls are fragile and vulnerable; their lack of height offers no protection against
cyclones and the poor coral-based soil and sparse rain make any sort of agriculture
almost impossible.  Justifiably named the “dangerous archipelago” they have been
avoided by sailors for hundreds of years until recently.  Now, with the widespread use of
GPS and radar on small sailing vessels most yachts making the Pacific passage
generally explore two or three atolls, but with a higher level of navigational diligence than
most landfalls.   The Tuamotos were discovered by Magellan in 1521 and their history is
still unclear.  The geophysical formation of crater shapes suggests they were at one time
volcanic.  For a visual picture, imagine taking a string of white pearls joined at the clasp
and making an irregular circle of them on a deep blue carpet.  Repeat that 76 times
(changing the shape of the pearl loop each time), and you have an idea of what the
Tuamoto formation looks like.  Strings of bright white land, topped with coconut palms,
interrupted by low corally spots where the ocean washes in with only one or two places
where the coral subsides enough to allow a flow of water sufficient for a boat to enter the
lagoon.  These reef passes are turbulent and sometimes violent, with currents up to 9
knots, when approached at the wrong tide.  We were on our toes in the “full alert”
position, and did just fine.

Noon saw us at anchor and we spent the remainder of the day snoozing and taking in the
scenery.   Our sailboat neighbours here were SugarCane and Olive Oyl, good fun folks
and we spent quite a bit of time with them over our 4 days in Ahe.  Our first (and lasting)
impression of the atoll was how totally different it was from the high, green Marquesan
scenery.  This was low-lying, bright white sand with calm aqua coloured water and coated
with waving green coconut palms.    We’d planned to do our initial beach reconnaissance
early next day, but the locals had other plans for us: by pirogue (outrigger canoe) arrived
the Ahe Pearl Mafia!

Did we mention the Tuamotos has pearls ?????   This is not only the center, but the
ONLY place on the planet that produces commercial quantities of black pearls via it’s 45
pearl farms.  It is the primary “industry” of about one dozen of the atolls and along with
copra, the only export.  The pearls are harvested then sent to Tahiti, the center for
classification, buying, setting and selling.  However, the pearl farmers in the atolls hold
some back, knowing that (a) the buyers would reject them and (b) that cruisers will gladly
trade for them with goods the locals cannot procure at the atoll.  The Ahe pearl mafia
consisted of four13-year old boys.  They produced some pearls, we pushed them about,
selected the half dozen of interest then said “we’ll deal tomorrow”… they were impatient
to trade right then, but we adamantly said “tomorrow”.   This was part of our strategy
(living in Asia for years helps one perfect the politics of bargaining!!).   The pearlers thus
had a chance to check us out, recognize we had “stuff” they might want and to gain an
understanding of what type/size/colour of the glossy baubles we preferred.  Skip to the
next day.   What occurred then was probably one of  the most amazing afternoon’s of our
lives!!!  In the morning, subsequent to new information from s/v Olive Oyl, we had
contacted the “head man” of the pearl farmers: a patient, heavy-set tattooed man in his
forties. (You must understand that “contacting” someone in the atolls means you’ve found
them lounging on someone else’s boat, drinking beer).  We collected him and his son by
dinghy and he proceeded to show us some of the pearls he had on him….once again, we
indicated we wanted larger, baroque style.  So he dispatched his son with Henry as
driver, to his house to collect said pearls while he remained on DREAMCATCHER with
me.  Only minutes later, the previous day’s 4 teenage boys arrived, complete with a much
larger booty of the black baubles: what to do ? TWO pearl dealers aboard at the same
time – did we have a competitive playoff on our hands?  It was a little awkward, until we
discovered that all five of them were related  – of course, with Ahe’s population of 200,
everyone is cousins here!  We ended up with about 8 noisy Tuamotans  on the boat with
a pile of trading goods (that were flying about the cockpit, being fingered and evaluated
for “coolness”) and dozens of pearls on the table, some occasionally bouncing onto the
cockpit floor with panicked scrambling to stop them running down the drain holes!  It was
a noisy, entrepreneurial and fun melee where everyone got what they wanted, and not
one word of the 3 hour transaction was spoken in common language.  Commerce reigns
Here’s what we traded for dozens of assorted black pearls :
New Goods: 1 bottle cheap Vodka (not for the kids), 1 pair of Nike sports shoes, 1 dozen
AAA batteries, 2 cups full of candy/chocolates, 1 x Thai sundress (value $3), 1 x lipstick
value $1, 1 x $8 watch, one stretch “pineapple” top. Used Goods: 1 x sarong, 1 x 10 year
old swim costume, 2 t-shirts, 2 x baseball caps, 1 x woolly cap (Henry’s old night watch
cap – way cool, even in the tropics, if you’re 13 and want to look like Eminem!).   What a
deal, what a day!!!  We marveled at the lovely pearls we now have, but the true gem was
the precious time we spent wheeling and dealing with the pearl farmers!

When we did eventually get onto land, we walked through the village, white sandy streets,
happy houses with scrambly gardens – its hard to grow anything here with the coral and
shell “soil” and a few “official” buildings: neat church with the obligatory red spire, school
house and very crisp looking Post Office which opens for 2 hours daily.  There is no
power grid here yet, so most houses sport a bank of solar panels, growing alongside the
coconut palms.  The French Government will power the island in 2005, so cruisers
visiting Ahe next year can expect to pick up some solar panels at bargain basement
prices!  The magasin (grocery store) is about the size of a small bedroom and stocks
basics and beer (unless of course your regard beer as a basic!).  Eggs are $6
USD/dozen ($8 AUD, $9 SGD).  As we walked the width of the atoll from the lagoon to
the ocean – about 300 yards – we were joined by a self-appointed escort of 3 young
children.  They wanted to walk with us, show as the reef, and demonstrated an incredible
aptitude with the camera.  We have been so delightfully surprised at the natural
photogenic bent of the island kids – instead of shyness, they are straightforward
exhibitionists, demanding we take their photo, then crowding around the digital cam to
view the picture.   Once again, we wished we had a colour printer aboard so we could
distribute the printed version to them or their parents.

On walking back to the village from the reef – all of 200 yards – the kids brought us to an
open air BBQ – the animal being turned on the spit was larger than a dog, so that was a
relief, and said beast was being basted by none other than our pearl farmer!  This was a
lunch that was being prepared for a group of adults in a louvered building nearby: we
lingered by the steps curiously – they waved us in and seated at the back of the room
viewed two whiteboards covered in headings, flow charts, grids – oh no! we though we
were back at corporate HQ!!!
Funnily enough, we had wandered into a Seventh Day Adventurers convention!!!  As they
made was no attempt to convert us from our vagabond lifestyle, we stayed and chatted
with several of them who spoke perfect English – it was a pleasure to be able to speak
converse with residents of the atolls in our native tongue, having struggled in French to
gain an understanding of local customs…

We had just settled back aboard in the cockpit when a cacophony of noise yielded 5
laughing kids at the boat ladder.  They’d swam from the dock, wanting to visit
DREAMCATCHER, now only one of two boats at anchor, so we gave them a candy stick
each while they scampered over the deck.  Once again, it turned into a noisy photo-shoot
until they were ready to go ashore an hour or so later.  We piled them into the dinghy –
Henry was displaced at the controls, and the bunch of them took off, driving the dink
around the lagoon, laughing all the way…. they looked like the Keystone Cops gone
troppo!  These children grow up in the Pacific and have a complete synergy with
everything that happens in their watery world – they learn to drive the family boat (there
are no cars here) as infants and are competent  swimmers and divers before they learn
the alphabet.  They have a happy, free wheeling and simple lifestyle.  One young lad was
wearing shorts with one pant leg missing, so the folks from Sugarcane abducted him,
pinched his pants, sewed another leg into it and sent him off happily with the complete
two-legged version.  There is a definite fondness between the cruising community and
the atoll residents.

Homes are humble but mostly neat, often with satellite TV.  Families own a good boat
with an expensive outboard engine, but most people wear second-hand clothes, traded
with cruisers for pearls.  The pearl industry makes for an interesting economic dichotomy:
there is absolutely nothing to buy here so locals may appear raggedy but they are not
poor by any stretch, and most wander about with a pocketful of pearls that would fetch
hundreds or thousands of dollars in the retail market.  

We invested some of our time in Ahe scrubbing DREAMCATCHER’s bottom back into
shape : we removed the green waterline moustache which had flourished in the
Marquesas and scraped barnacles and growth from the propeller and rudder, though
overall her hull surface was smooth.  It was a delight to be in such calm, clear, aqua
water  and we’ve committed to spending an hour a day while in the atolls, getting her
below-the-water complexion back to “milk & roses”!

On our last evening, we’d just finished dinner, when Olive Oyl’s dinghy passed by and
said “ we’re going for a beach fire, come along!”, so we joined the 30-something’s in a
spot lit convoy dodging coral heads in the sparkling shallows and subsequently onto a
lagoon beach half a mile away.  We built a waterside fire from dead palm fronds,
driftwood and old coconuts and whiled the night away, telling tall stories and drinking
wine under the South Pacific sky.  Magic.

Our passage to Rangiroa the following day proved to be peaceful – in fact a little too
peaceful with winds ranging from 8-12 knots (the DREAMCATCHER likes 18-22) so we
were running behind schedule for the critically timed reef pass entry and sadly had to
motor the last 3 hours.  Entry into the lagoon via the reef pass went smoothly, though lying
aground on the reef, 200 yards from the pass was another sailboat: a stark reminder of a
miss-timed or miss-navigated approach.  Rangiroa is the largest atoll of the Tuamotos
and the second largest in the world…it measures 75 x 25 Km and has the atoll hallmarks
of a thin white sand perimeter thickly coated with palm trees.  We motored between
passes inside the lagoon through sparkling water overlaying coral.  Small buildings, a red
spired church etc. dotted the waterfront but it was mostly unoccupied until we approached
the boutique Kia Ora beach resort.  Our cruising pals, Sugarcane and Olive Oyl were
anchored nearby it in 60 feet, but we chose a spot in 18’ of aqua water over bright white
sand.  It is lovely.  We’re viewing distance to the resort but far enough away to ensure
privacy.   The lagoon is so big that the other side is not visible and we marvel at the fact
that we are essentially in a mid ocean lake.  The surface is as smooth as glass, and we
are well aware that we are probably in the purest place on the planet – so many  miles
from the pollution of civilization, with incredibly clean air and water.  

Rangiroa, and most of the Tuamoto atolls had warlike populations BC and up until the
early 17th century explorers, with many of the tribal wars wiping out whole atoll
populations.  Tsunami’s and cyclones have also taken their toll, as did the European
settlers laden with diseases.  The populations have never fully recovered from this variety
of scourges and now only small family groups who farm black pearls populate the motus
that form the atolls.

There is another entry pass into the Rangiroa lagoon and we took the dinghy there, tied
to a mooring ball and watched the swirling surge of the tidal flow change.  We went
overboard into the crystal clear water with fins and snorkel and looked with delight at the
variety of brightly coloured tropical fish.  The coral appears to be second generation: new
growth over dead coral.  Coral dies for a variety of reasons, often ocean temperatures
that are too high, or exposure to air during storms – it is the latter that is likely to have
caused the coral here to die at some point: Ahe atoll was hit by a cyclone in 1987 that
wiped out it’s coral, and it is likely Rangiroa suffered the same fate at the same time.  
However, new growth has started and in some areas of the lagoon is quite robust.  
Snorkeling was fun, as was the dinghy ride back to the jetty, dodging coral heads through
the clear blue water.    We thought it fitting to get the salt taste out of our mouths by having
a cocktail on the decks of the lovely resort hotel, and enjoyed the view of the small fleet at
anchor in the lagoon.  This is truly a delightful place.!

We’re running down our fresh supplies – sadly down to our last onion and a rapidly
emptying cooking gas tank, so we traded a pampelmousse for several heads of garlic
from Olive Oyl, and a big batch of chili for a large wad of deep sea fish from Sugarcane –
who said trading was only with the locals?!  Olive Oyl sports a great all-guy crew with two
chefs and a sommelier on board – you can imagine the conversations over meal
preparation!!!  They’re on their way to the Society Islands to lay up and work for the
year… Tahiti won’t know what hit them!  Our pals (Dave & Huub) on Speranza are
currently socializing with the pearl farmers on another atoll south of here (Raroia) and
having a great time before they fast-passage to Thailand.  We’ve set up a thrice weekly
radio-sched and plan to keep in touch with them.

To check out the Rangiroa village we splurged and rented a “car” for 4 hours…. As
mentioned, the atolls are somewhat like strings of white pearls: between the pearls
(motus) the sea rushes in and there is no inter-motu access: Rangiroa has bridged 3 of
the motus with concrete aqueducts and subsequently created an elongated motu 6 miles
long which runs between the two major navigational passes: this is the maximum
distance one can drive on Rangiroa and this road and its offshoots (remember, the
motu/atoll is only 400 yards wide!) houses it’s entire vehicle population.  Our set of
wheels was a funny little red “fun car” for 2 people.  It sounded and rode like an electric
toothbrush but we had a terrific amount of fun exploring the extended motu with it.  At the
eastern end was a small bar and a dirt access road to the Tiputa pass: we rolled down to
the water’s edge to view the current rushing through, couldn’t get the little red beast to
reverse so had to pick it up and walk it 20 feet to the road!  On the other end of “town” is
the church and a similar viewing spot for the other entry pass.  In between is an
assortment of magasins (grocery shops), modest but colourful souvenir shops, the
airstrip and the odd restaurant.  This atoll is closest to Tahiti and thus hosts the most non-
sailing visitors of any of the Tuamotos.  Additionally there is a pearl farm there, one of
four, which has a retail front end selling pearls: they were lovely, but we were much
happier with our more authentic buying experience in Ahe!  These atolls have a very
different beauty to that of the Marquesas, and we delighted in walking along the ocean-
side reef at sunset watching the water recede and pushing the sun-bleached coral
around with our feet.

Close to our planned departure day, the wind shifted to the west and kicked up to 30
knots.  The lagoon turned into a turbulent white capped monster, throwing around 3-4 ft
waves – where was our glassy bright blue lake?  We did anchor watch all night to ensure
we didn’t drag and stayed aboard most of the next day while conditions eventually
calmed  and the winds swung back to their more customary SouthEast orientation.  We
had been involved in one segment of a very complex weather scenario across the South
Pacific, which, we are learning is a very different and less predictable animal than the
North Pacific.  According to Gary’s weather net, there were 4 lows, 2 convergence zones
and 2 cold fronts in play across the Pacific.  Taken in isolation, the behaviour of any
single element is somewhat predictable, but the permutations and combinations of these
8 elements powered some quite exceptional circumstances.  Many boats were pinned
into anchorages in the Cook Islands, unable to exit due to the high winds.    We did,
however, take our leave the next day, prepared for 20-25 knot winds, which didn’t
materialise.   When we weighed anchor we left only 3 boats in the anchorage:
SugarCane and Olive Oyl had gone ahead and we voyaged alone.

Our 200 miler to the Society Islands was characterized by a beautiful blue sky day with
11-13 knots of wind on rolling seas.  The second day, expected to be more robust, turned
into an ever-lightening scenario till eventually we had no wind at all and had to motor.  We
did start the sailors lament of “where’s the wind?” but stopped ourselves before too long
realizing how lucky we were to be on a handsome boat in such a gorgeous blue ocean
under a bold blue sky, and all to ourselves.  The enormity of the Pacific strikes us from
time to time – usually about 10,000 foot of it under the keel - rich, deep blue, covering a
third of the planet – it is quite a magnificent thing.

We continue to re-decorate our clothes with food stains while the boat lurches during
passaging – I’ve never spilled so much food on me in all my life!  Henry holds the record
for coffee spillages, which are now measured in flood proportions!   We remain fish-less,
despite dragging the line for the past 2 days, probably as our boat-speed was too low
(Dorado – which is our desired catch – like to strike the lure at about 6-7 knots).   
Honestly, (Graham!) we will continue to try.

Pre-dawn we saw a glow in the southern sky which could only be the lights of
Tahiti…sunrise unveiled the tall peaks of the big Society Islands, Tahiti and Moorea – we
pointed DreamCatcher at the latter and looked forward to yet another island experience.

Click on link to view  PHOTOS FOR JOURNAL 14