Unplugged in Paradise

When we left Seattle three years ago we joked about being “off the grid” as Wally and Dilbert would call it. No phones, no power bills and no cable TV or internet. It seemed like a nice idea at the time, like many ideas do. Reality is that with our sideband radio and modem we’ve never been away from email, and like many other cruisers when we get to an anchorage where there is wi-fi the prime anchoring spots are determined now by how good the signal is onboard the boat.

So when we discovered that our only remaining computer (one had died in Costa Rica) failed just as we were about to make one last check of the weather and pull up our hook for our passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus we were so sad. Sad to be totally unplugged and not to be able to write blogs or get email from family and friends along the way. But mostly unhappy about not having access to weather and tide information and being dependent on other friends out here to provide that for us. Did folks cruise years ago without computers and do fine using their barometers and knowledge of weather systems – sure they did. But we’ve really become accustomed to the latest and greatest forecast information we’ve been able to get at the click of a button.

So for now I’m borrowing a computer from Brit and will hopefully have my brother Tony ship a new one down to Papeete. And hopefully we can recover the hard drive from my old machine and get our address book back (if we regularly correspond with you and you don’t hear from us please drop us a note so I have your email address again). Anyway, back to the sailing tales.

The passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus basically sucked. There’s been some sort of a small convergence zone in that area for a couple of weeks and we had constant squalls and rain. We had waited in the Marquesas for some big winds to pass and sure enough the first night out we had no wind and motored for 15 hours. When the wind filled in it was from the right direction and reasonably strong, but every few hours we would pass through a rainsquall, which meant it would change directions and pipe up to 30 knots or so. We spent a lot of time furling and unfurling the jib. And as romantic as 15 knot beam winds sound when you’re home in Puget Sound (we never get to sail with beam winds there), in the Pacific Ocean they’re a pain in the ass because you have huge seas right on your beam that splash you constantly.

We were getting ready for our last night out and changed our destination to Makemo where Brit & Axel were because there was internet and we could borrow their computer and start making arrangements to get ours replaced. Also there was a store and a dive shop. The pass entrance at Makemo is a tough one because there is a 6-8 knot current from the huge lagoon through a small pass. We slowed down to arrive at daybreak and low tide, and found standing waves in the pass caused by the outgoing current bumping into the waves from the big winds (there was 25 knots of wind at the time). We waited until about 10 minutes after low tide hoping the current would ease and snuck in on the left side of the pass out of the standing waves with about 3.5-4 knots of current against us. Since our little boat only makes 5-6 knots we had little forward momentum, but finally were through and in safely.


The weather soon settled and we were inside a beautiful lagoon with crystal clear water and lots of coral and reef fishes. Brit & Axel arranged for the local dive shop to take us diving the next day so we could make our first drift dive through the pass with an experienced guide. Drift diving is basically being carried along by the current, which from what we had seen the day before sounded pretty intense. But the next day all the standing waves were gone and we went out as the end of the incoming tide was entering the lagoon. The coral outside the pass was as prolific and healthy as Rob had seen in the Red Sea years ago. The drift through the pass was exhilarating. The current was about 3-4 knots and it felt like we were literally flying along the reef.

The next day we decided to head north to the next atoll, which was 75 miles away. That’s too far to get during daylight so we left Makemo on a high slack tide at 5:00 pm, hoping to arrive at Tahanea in time for another slack tide at daybreak. The sailing was exceptional with a nearly full moon and beam winds without huge beam seas this time. But the wind kept clocking to the northwest all night. By the time we reached Tahanea before daybreak the clouds had packed in and the winds had built to 25 and we were sailing though massive storm cells with big winds and huge rains. Well crap, here we go again. And sure enough we missed the opportunity to get inside the pass at high tide because once again there were 6′ standing waves. We think the lagoon had filled up frommakemo the big winds pushing surf over the reef and the outgoing tide was much stronger than usual. So we had to wait outside for 5 hours in huge seas and wind and rain for the next slack tide. We couldn’t anchor or drift because the seas were so huge, so we motored around for 5 hours. In retrospect, we should have just hove to, which is a maneuver where you backwind your jib and essentially “park” the boat. But we had no sails up in the squalls and were on a lee shore. That meant we would have had to go offshore and then work our way back, and we kept thinking we could get through the pass “next time around”.

Finally it was about 10 minutes to low tide and the standing waves were only on the right side of the pass. We could see upwind from us that some huge rain squalls were headed our way pretty quick, so we decided to make a run for it before we got blasted with what might be 30 knots of wind. We snuck in again on the left side with 2.5 knots of current against us and were so happy when we got the hook down in the anchorage inside the lagoon where we are now. Unfortunately this weather system is slow getting by us and we’re pitching about pretty good in here this morning. But the wind has turned more westerly which means the system is slowly moving away.

Once the weather settles we’ll try another drift dive through the pass here. There is no town or dive shop at this atoll, so we’ll take turns tending the dinghys with Hello World like we did at Cocos. But given that there are 3′ seas here inside the lagoon today, that likely won’t happen until tomorrow. Today I’ll get caught up on email and weather forecasts and figure out how to get a new computer shipped in.


Makemo is here

Tuamotus Update

We’re still anchored in the atoll of Tahanea in the Tuamotus archipelago of French Polynesia. The ugly weather system that made our entrance here so eventful has mostly moved past. We had a lovely day yesterday and went ashore to explore and did a little snorkel on a reef inside the lagoon.

Tahanea Pass

The atolls here are incredibly interesting. They began as deep underwater bulges over magma that grew until they broke the ocean surface and erupted as volcanoes. When the eruptions eventually stopped, erosion from the wind and rain created soil for plants, and coral polyps grew on the rocks on the periphery of the islands creating coral reefs. Eventually the islands eroded completely away, leaving behind only little patches of land and the ring of coral as a reef around a lagoon. The coral growth is most prolific on the windward side where the current is stronger, which can be seen in many atolls where the reef and motus (little islands) are bigger on the north and east sides. The gaps and passes into the lagoon that we use were created by fresh water streams flowing down the sides of the volcano, which prevented the buildup of the coral polyps and reefs.

Anchoring inside the lagoon is like being anchored in an aquarium. Marine life that is not sustainable in the deep waters of the ocean live in the lagoons. Tropical fish are abundant, as are colorful coral heads. Navigation inside the lagoons is tricky, though, as the coral heads rise to the surface in patches throughout the uncharted lagoon.

And while the tropical fish are lovely to look at, ciguatera poisoning is a serious problem in many of the atolls. Ciguatera is a toxin caused by a microscopic organism which grows on marina algae and is eaten by the reef fish. The fish aren’t affected by the toxin, which accumulates and is passed on to fish that eat them all the way up the food chain. The pelagic deep sea fish we catch are not affected, but the reef fish in the lagoon are. The only way to be sure if the fish are safe is to ask the locals. On Makemo we enjoyed some delicious grouper caught by a yachtie and shared at a barbeque potluck. Here on Tahanea there are no inhabitants who would know about ciguatera, so all fishing is off limits in the lagoon.


That’s not going to stop us from trying to catch some lobster.  We’re going night diving tonight on a little reef inside the atoll and hope to bag a few of the little crustaceans. A bunch of folks went out on the reef in an inter-tidal zone earlier in the week at low tide after dark one night and everyone came home with lobster. They come out to feed at night and are apparently stunned by bright lights at night and relatively easy to catch. We’ll see how we do.

Tomorrow we’ll move over to the southern pass here in Tahanea and decide if we can do a pass dive. The main pass doesn’t look as interesting as the southern one, so we’ll see how it looks. Then we’ll head north to Fakarava, another atoll 50 miles north. If we leave at daybreak and have decent wind we should be able to easily make the 50 miles and arrive at the southern pass at Fakarava with enough daylight to navigate the tricky entrance into the lagoon. There are many reefs inside the pass that we have to work around to get to the anchorage so we need relatively good light.


Tahanea is here

If It’s Tuesday It Must Be Toau

Otherwise known as “Another Day, Another Atoll”. And yes, I do know that it’s only Monday. But here we are anchored in the beautiful atoll of Toau after a quick 15 mile sail up from Fakarava.

We ended up not moving to the other anchorage on Tahanea last week because some weather was threatening, so we left and sailed north to Fakarava. The timing of slack tides in the passes did not work out for a day sail, so we headed out late afternoon from Tahanea and sailed overnight to the south pass of Fakarava. Unfortunately it was only a 50 mile sail and we had to burn up 13 hours for a daylight arrival. We sailed with only a reefed main and were still going too fast and approaching too quickly, when at 3:00 a squall came through and the wind died behind it. After that we drifted and arrived just at daybreak as planned. Hello World was running with bare poles most of the night and also arrived at daybreak.

The pass entrance at Fakarava was finally an uneventful one, and we motored into an anchorage inside the atoll. The village at the pass has been abandoned, but there remains one hotel with overwater bungalows and a little restaurant and dive shop. We arranged for a dive with the guide the next day through the pass on the incoming tide. He told us about what to expect on the dive, and that at one point we would see “hundreds of sharks”. Yeah whatever, we thought.


Bright and early at 6:30 the next morning we were motoring out the pass and dropped into 100′ of water. It was absolutely spectacular. The coral was so healthy and the water was crystal clear. There were schools of fish so huge they nearly blocked out the light. And sure enough as we rounded the corner into the pass there was a little area with a ledge at about 60′ that looked out into the deep dark waters of the pass. We all grabbed ahold of a piece of coral to stop us from drifting and looked over the ledge, where there were literally hundreds of sharks. And OK, it was really really cool. It’s the narrowest part of the pass and the sharks all just hang out there. Every day.

We finished up the dive at the hotel where there was a Napoleon Wrass that’s obviously a pet, because he was getting fed fresh fish by the dive guide. He was too big to fit in the water, which was only about 2′ deep, and it was funny to see him swimming around sideways to stay underwater. We all got a chance to pet him, which was something I can say I’ve never done before.

Later that afternoon Rob went to work on the watermaker of another boat in the anchorage so I went for a snorkel behind the boat. I was going to swim over, but there was a very aggressive remora under the boat who kept swimming at me, well inside my comfort zone. I took the dink over to shore, and the snorkeling was amazing. The bommies (coral heads) rise up to just below the level of the water, and I was swimming around between them like in a maze. It was so much fun seeing all the coral and fishies that close. At one point a 4′ reef shark and I spotted each other, but we both did a 180 degree turn and all was well.


The next day we motored up inside the lagoon to the town at the north end of Fakarava where there was internet. Rob & I got online and ordered some new computers to my brother Tony’s house. He’s going to load them up and ship them off (Thanks TB!) to some folks in Kentucky who are flying in to Tahiti next week to see the people on the boat whose watermaker Rob worked on last week. Yesterday we went to lunch at the resort and had the best $15 cheeseburgers we’ve ever had. And actually, quite shockingly, it’s only the third restaurant we’ve been to since we left the Galapagos in early April.

After this atoll we’ll likely head up to Rangiroa, the largest and most touristy of the Tuamotu atolls. Then we’ll go to Papeete and visit the Society Islands. Years ago I was reading a cruiser blog where a woman made a comment that she was absolutely bored in the South Pacific, and she said “if you’ve seen one sandy beach with palm trees you’ve seen them all”. I was horrified that someone could become so bored so quickly. But in actual fact, these atolls do all start looking quite alike very quickly. We’ll hopefully do some diving here and discover some underwater treasures before we head north again after this weather system passes in a couple of days.


Fakarava south anchorage is here

Trapped In Toau

The wind had been relatively quiet the last week, so when we sailed up from Fakarava to Toau we were glad to have some breeze to sail with. Our pass entrance was uneventful and we motored into the pass on the east side with about 3 knots of current and the wind at our backs.

After realizing that the coral on the reefs inside the atoll was mostly dead and not worth diving, we decided to head around to the northwestern side to an anchorage called Anse Amyot. By that time the wind had been blowing a good 15 knots from the east for 3 days, and was forecast to build as the week went on.

The sail to Anse is 23 miles, so we figured we needed 4 hours of daylight to make it safely around before dark. That meant we had to be out the pass by noon or not much later. Low tide yesterday was around 1:00, and we knew from our entrance earlier in the week that slack current was two hours later than that.

We pulled our anchor the first time at 10:00 and motored over to the pass, noticing we had two knots of current as we approached the pass. That meant there was still quite a bit of current going out the pass into wind driven waves from 3 days of an easterly breeze. As we got close enough to see the entrance we found 6′ to 9′ standing waves in the pass. So back to the anchorage we went.

We pulled our anchor the second time at 11:30 and motored around again, noticing that there wasn’t as much current. But again as we approached we decided the waves were just too big to get through and breaking in the middle, so we went back and anchored again.

As we returned again to the anchorage, Hello World was pulling up their anchor to head out. Because they sail much faster, they could leave later and still get to the other anchorage before dark. We watched them through the binoculars and when we saw the first third of their boat come out of the water as they hit the pass it looked absolutely frightening. They’re 13′ longer than us and I’d guess they weight about 7 tons more than us, and they were taking a pounding. Brit called after they were clear and said it was really bad, and they wouldn’t do that again.

Knowing the wind was only going to build as the week went on, we started wondering how and when we were ever going to get out of there. We really felt like we were going to be trapped in Toau. There was a high tide in the morning around 6:00, so we decided we would go over with the dinghy and watch it and see how it looked and if the waves ever laid down.

Just as nightfall approached we saw lights coming into the lagoon through the pass. There was just enough daylight to see through the binoculars that the boat wasn’t bouncing at all, and it looked like the standing waves were gone. We checked our watches and noted the time relative to the approaching evening high tide.

After checking the weather and knowing the wind was going to get worse, we decided to get up this morning and make a run for it at first light. If we had the anchor up at daybreak we could be out to the pass at the same time relative to the high tide as the boat was that came in.

One of the dangers with breaking waves on your boat is losing things tied to the boat. Rob added 3 extra lines to the dinghy, which we tie onto the bow, lashing it to the bow cleats in front and rails in the back. We took all the empty fuel jugs, fenders and everything else inside the boat. From the cockpit we gathered everything that wasn’t tied down and put it below. We put on our harnesses and clipped ourselves in and headed out.

The primary danger with taking breaking waves is getting sideways to them and getting knocked down. So the most important thing to do is to keep from letting them push the bow down and continue powering into them. As we approached the pass we saw what looked like a clear path on the left side where there was less outgoing current. We headed for the left side, but as we got closer the waves started breaking there, too. Then the right side looked clear, so we headed across to the right side of the channel.

This pass is only about 200 yards wide and 25 feet deep, with reefs on both sides. As we approached the right side the waves started to get steeper, and suddenly we were in it. We hadn’t gotten far enough to the right and had to turn out into the waves to keep from getting broadside to them and knocked over.

We took three breaking waves about 10 seconds apart, the first being just forward of the beam on our port side. As it pushed the bow down I steered as hard as I could to turn us back into it and we immediately took another one over the bow. We both saw it coming, and Rob was lucky to have a dodger to duck under. I took it right in the face. Again I had to turn into it, but the third one broke behind us.

We could see that we were going to get very lucky and got outside the big ones very quickly. After that it was a quick sigh of relief and steering through the huge rollers for another 45 minutes to get clear of the slop created by the pass.

We could see a small ship approaching the pass from Fakarava as we exited. We watched them motor toward the pass about 45 minutes after we had gone through. The boat was about 150′ long, and looked like the local supply ship. They got just close enough to see the pass and turned around and headed back to Fakarava. Rob was going to call them on the VHF and heckle them a bit, but couldn’t remember all the Monty Python lines for taunting the French. {I really thought it’d be funny to get on the radio, point out we were the little sailboat rolling around in the waves behind them, and offer them advice on getting through. I’ve always liked the Monty Python line “I taunt you”, but stopped when I realized we were in no position to evade flying cows. – Rob}

In all fairness, they were 45 minutes after us, and we wouldn’t have made it out if we had been even 15 minutes later, I’m sure. The only thing that did made it passable for us was taking a course along the edge of the pass. We missed about 90% of the big waves, but the 10% that hit us made up for it. It was a total nail biter the whole time because we know our charts are not 100% accurate down here, and we were between breaking waves in the pass and waves breaking onto the reef.

So here we are now in a beautiful anchorage on the northwest side of the same atoll with our friends from Tasmania on Warrior, and of course Hello World. This pass is not exposed to the easterly winds, so while we feel a nice breeze, there are no waves at the pass and the wind waves from the atoll break on the reef in front of us. We’re planning on leaving at first light for Tahiti, but are tempted to stay and do some diving with Robin and HW tomorrow.

From here it’s about 220 miles to Tahiti. If we leave at first light and can manage 7 knots consistently we can get in with only one night out at sea. We think we’ll have about a knot of current with us and pretty good wind, so we should be able to pull it off.


Toau pass is here

Trapped In Toau Part Deux

We had decided to stay another day and dive with Warrior and Hello World, but I was still a little concerned about the wind. It was already blowing 5 knots harder than forecast. So when I woke up at 3:00 it seemed like a good time to get a new forecast for a spot mid passage between Toau and Tahiti.


It showed winds to 30 knots and seas to 18 feet for the next 6 days. The winds would be on our stern quarter, which is good, but 30 knots can generate pretty good wind waves. The forecast seas were from a system in the Southern Ocean, and would be from the south-southwest. Given that we need to travel southwest to Tahiti, it seemed like heading into 18′ waves wouldn’t be all that amusing. And when two wave trains meet, the size of the resulting wave is the sum of each. So does that mean that the forecasted 18′ accounts for the wind driven waves from the east combining with the southern swell, or will we end up with 25+ foot seas?

It became pretty easy to decide the buoy we’re on here was a nice spot to hang out for another five or six days. And it really is beautiful here. We’re in a little slot in the reef around the atoll which appears to be a pass, but which really is a a cul-de-sac blocked by a coral bank across the inner side. The water is stirred up by the wind, so the diving is no good, but the snorkeling is still fabulous just 50 yards off the bow of the boat.


There are two locals here who have installed the buoys and have a little restaurant. Last night we went ashore and joined our friends in an absolutely delicious Polynesian dinner. There were six courses, including appy and desert, and we left completely filled. I even snuck home a piece of fish for Maya.

So we’ll do some chores and swim a bit and I’ll try to not go stir crazy while we wait out the weather system. So far the forecasts are pretty consistently agreeing that it’s going to die on July 2nd. So we have to balance getting out in time and having enough wind to sail to Tahiti with getting out too soon and bashing all the way there. Our fresh fruit and veggie supplies are cleaned out, the food and paper goods we bought in Panama six months ago are nearly gone, and we have almost nothing but water and coffee for beverages. Definitely time to find the big city of Papeete and some mega grocery stores.


Anse Amyot is here

Urgent Blog Update – Pineapples Do NOT Grow On Trees

After dinner last night Valentine invited Brit & Michelle and I to come ashore this morning and she would show us how to make coconut bread. So at 10:00 we brought our bowls and some flour ashore, where Gaston was wringing the milk from from some freshly grated coconut.

During the course of the conversation we were discussing the whole hunting and gathering thing, which admittedly Rob & I suck at. He’s great with a fishing line, but that’s about our limit. I mentioned the day we had rented the car in Nuku Hiva and Michelle burst into laughter.

Apparently she had read my blog posting and had to tell me that as and it turns out, believe it or not, that pineapples do NOT grow on trees! In my own defense, I can only say that if you’re two North Americans from the Pacific Northwest and two Germans from Bremen, the things you see from the car certainly look like pineapples.

But no, they’re another type of tropical fruit named pandanus. Rob, of course, says “that’s Polynesian for pineapple”. And reportedly they’re extremely bitter.

After we finished making coconut bread, Valentine and Brit got down to some serious trading of jewelry making stuff for black pearls. Valentine took out her tools and showed us how she seeds the oysters to make the pearls, which is very interesting. Hopefully she’ll have some time tomorrow and she’s going to take Brit & Michelle & I out to see the pearl farm here.


Anse Amyot is here