Slow Passage West

Sailing the Pacific we have decided requires the patience of a saint; the 550 nm from Nuka Hiva to Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago has been a tale of light winds swinging through some 40 or 60 degrees from the NE through to ESE requiring regular sail trimming or course alterations. Having left in moderate breeze and sailing nicely on Thursday morning, spent the following afternoon under kite in very light conditions and the day after that motoring for some eight hours, the only good thing is that the sea has been relatively flat, even the banana bowl has stayed put on the saloon table! Daily noon to noon runs have slowly decreased from a first day total of 134nm to Monday noon’s 108 nm, even the South Equatorial Current deserted us.

The only real interest early on was the sighting of a single red light behind us on Friday night. The skipper tried hailing the “yacht” on the VHF to no avail. Whatever it was it was going a lot faster than Temptress on a parallel course roughly a mile or so off to starboard. As it drew level the binoculars confirmed our suspicions not a sailing boat despite the navigation lights but a reasonably sized motor vessel whose steaming light either wasn’t working or was totally obscured. From the side two dim lengths of cabin lights could be seen above a long low hull and a very bright stern light but little superstructure, heading presumably to Tahiti from the Marquesas, and also presumably some kind of ferry but it remains a mystery.

Home made lemon cordial has been added temporarily to the ships stores; the juice and zest of six of the golf ball sized lemons we purchased in Nuka Hiva plus 500ml of water and around 6 tablespoons of sugar boiled up then bottled. Diluted one part cordial to four of water it adds interest to supper time but won’t last long! Far more zingy and refreshing than Gatorade.

On Sunday soon after we ‘d set up and poled out the Genoa to run goose winged, we had our second incident… The bowline holding the sheet to the clew somehow came undone. The skipper blamed his mate whilst she defended herself suggesting the skipper had time to check the knot when running the sheet through the block on the pole. Any which way it was quickly sorted and no harm done; the errant sail simply reverted to the starboard side of the boat and hung sulking in the lee of the mainsail waiting for someone to realise it had slipped away whilst the sheet end dangled out of reach from the outboard end of the pole on the port side. The two were soon firmly reunited and Temptress was sailing efficiently once more.

The Tuamotus are a chain of coral atolls (plus a couple of true islands) stretching north and west from Isles de Gambier (not strictly part of the Tuamotus but still part of French Polynesia) on the Tropic of Capricorn at 135W to 15S 150W. Atolls are the last vestiges of volcanic islands, in fact their encircling reefs. The islands have sunk into the sea leaving crystal clear shallow lagoons enclosed by a chain of coral islands like a necklace. There are 78 atolls, some famous but out of bounds like Mururoa the former French nuclear test site, some tiny, uninhabited and inaccessible to boats. One, our planned destination Rangiroa, is the world’s second largest atoll at 40 miles by 17 enclosing a lagoon more akin to a small sea and with a pass that is reputedly easy for beginners. 

The reason we are going? The crystal clear water for snorkelling, picture post card views, the unique isolation of these atolls and to meet if possible some of the hardy people who call the Tuamotus home. They lie across our path to Tahiti and it would be foolish to pass them by.

Approaching these low lying coral islands is easier with gps but still not easy; surveyed positions may be out by several miles and as the tallest thing about them is the coconut palm at around 50 feet max the atolls are not visible until you are right upon them so have to be navigated with caution. Not for nothing did sailors of the pre-GPs era call this the Dangerous Archipelago.

The lagoons are entered via a channel called a pass between low islands known as motus (I read somewhere that Tuamotus means low islands). Other gaps between the motus are called hoas and allow the ocean to flood in and out at certain states of the tide and wind. The passes being deeper are subject to ferocious currents at peak tidal flows sometime over eight knots as they are the main route for all the water that has lapped over into the lagoon elsewhere. Coral reefs around the entry and exit giving rise to terrific rips (rough water) whilst a wind against tide situation in the pass itself causes large standing waves; not the place for any boat yet alone a yacht. Therefore entry and exit have to be planned with military precision for either high or low water slack; if you are fortunate and conditions are calm this is around an hour after high or low water. On occasion the weather is such that the wind driven ocean pours into the lagoons on the windward side so much so that the passes which are usually on the leeward side are a constant flow of outgoing sea and become non navigable for days.

We have read everything we have on board on making an entry or an exit in preparation for our first atoll. The reefs and coral heads or bommies both inside the lagoon and adjacent to the entrance mean the passage through should be made with the sun behind you or directly overhead to avoid hitting one. Definitely do not enter in the dark even if Rangiroa’s Tiputa Pass can accommodate moderately sized cruise ships like the Paul Gauguin

Our initial plan was to arrive in time for dawn on Monday 2 May with low water being an hour or so later. Rangiroa’s passes are both in the north east side meaning a morning entry rather than an afternoon one. However the wind being what it was Temptress was still at sea on Monday morning with some 100 nm to go. In fact we had already made the decision to delay arrival until Tuesday morning by late on Saturday. Though ironically the wind piped up on Sunday afternoon meaning Temptress was bowling along on a lively run with the wind over her port quarter at over 6 knots; where was that wind when we’d needed it 24 or 48 hours earlier? We reefed down and when the wind faded to a light breeze as it often does around sunset spent another night slowly making progress at 2 or 3 knots to waste some time.

Monday morning we were just hanging out the washing across the back of the cockpit when a yellowfin tuna took our lure, our first fishing success in ages. Funny how fish always know the most inconvenient time to strike! We had lost our favourite red and white rapala sometime during Sunday afternoon, no idea how or when but when the line was reeled it at sunset it was gone. So at least the yellowfin was some compensation and supper would be vastly more interesting than an ancient tin of Mr Sainsbury’s minced beef in gravy. And it made a very tasty poisson cru,  a dish that needs the freshest of fish. This was the ship’s cook’s first attempt at it; chop a clove of garlic, some onion, tomato, cucumber and red or green pepper finely, add an equal amount of freshly caught fish cut into 1 cm cubes, season, squeeze over a little lemon juice and add enough coconut milk to make a sauce but not drown everything. Stir thoroughly, refrigerate for a couple of hours then serve with brown bread to mop up the juices.

Assuming we reach Rangiroa and don’t pile into either Manihi or Ahe enroute we are as prepared as we can be for our very first atoll.

The Pacific Crossing Guide. Michael Pocock and Ros Hogbin, RCC Pilotage Foundation

Ocean Passages and Landfalls. Rod Heikell and Andy OGrady, Imray

Stopover Handbook in French Polynesia 2016-7, Yellow Flag Guides

Charlie’s Charts of Polynesia. 7th Ed Holly Scott and Jo Russell

Pacific Crossing Notes. Nadine Slavinski, Marcus Schwietzer

The Tuamotus Compendium. SY Soggy Paws (