Thursday, 9 April 2015

French Pol, Tuamotus, Tahiti - Fakarava North 19-03-15

We're finally in the Tuamotus! Fakarava to be exact, which is on the northern end of the island group. It's not exactly a tropical paradise right now, though it's certainly tropical. The weather keeps jumping between torrential rain and gusty wind, unable to find a happy middle ground. The passage here was supposed to take two and a half days and the weather along the way was supposed to be 20-30 knots. Like everything we do, this did not go to plan. We didn't check the weather properly before we left, keeping an eye on the Tahiti area and not managing to find time to check the Tuamotus as well. The weather reports here are so innacurate it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. We did know we were in for a bit of wind and rain, but expected it to pass quickly as it always does.

We had a nice day of sailing when we left Tahiti, with about 20 knots of solid wind helping us along. Then on the second day it picked up to 30 knots and the rain started. Torrential rain. We couldn't see a thing. We tried to keep a good look out like we always do, but eventually resigned ourselves to the fact that it was useless. We'd stick our heads up into the darkness with rain pelting down all around and we couldn't see more than a few metres around the boat. The waves got bigger. The rain got harder. And then the wind got stronger. I was very glad to have the AIS keeping an eye on anything lurking in the dark.


The Tuamotus can be quite dangerous - they are made up of about 40 atolls, all surrounded by reef. The passes to get inside the reefs are often dangerous and have to be done in the right weather at the right time. Then once you're inside the lagoon you need good visibility to be able to watch for coral heads reaching up from the bottom, just waiting for you to crash into them. So we couldn't enter in the dark, or in the rain, or in strong winds.

We were hoping to make it to our destination by the third day but the weather wasn't agreeing with us at all. We went from flying along at 7 knots to hardly making any ground at all, getting tossed around like a cork as the sea got bigger and bigger. About 20 miles out from our destination we gave in to the fact that we weren't going to arrive before dark. We pulled in the headsail, added a second reef to the main to make the sail as small as possible, and waited. The wind picked up to at least 40 knots and we got absolutely hammered, sailing back and forth all night long as we waited for the storm to pass.


I haven't been so scared since our first horrible trip up the coast of New Zealand with our brand new boat, almost two years ago. If feels like a million years have passed. Our first passage all alone. Our first, second, third and fourth storms. Our first lesson in the importance of securing and waterproofing. But it was also the last time I've been in such big seas or such massive swells - we've been spoiled with relatively good weather ever since. Like on that nasty passage, this time we again spent more time underneath the waves than on top of them, with water constantly crashing down on top of us. Neither of us could sleep properly, lying in a wet bed and constantly being woken by the crushing noise of a ton of water landing on top of us. The boat creaked and groaned. Coupled with the constant crashing, it sounded like it was being beaten up. The poor thing was crying.

The swell was huge, and steep. We were sailing back and forth with the wind hitting us on the beam, so we were side on to the waves. Sitting in the cockpit I would watch them approach, towering up above me. Then all I could do was hold on as we fell down with them, tipping sideways and landing in the trough with a mass of water landing on top of us. It was like a horrifying rollercoaster ride. Everything got ripped to shreds as the storm passed over us and I spent that night terrified that there would be nothing left after the rain cleared and we could see again. Our spare water jugs along the lifelines got ripped away from where they were tied on. There was still a rope attaching them to the deck, but they weren't as secure as they had been before. Every wave that smashed over them shuffled them around, making a huge racket downstairs. We lept over the waves before slamming down again, which lifted the jugs up a little and thumped them back on the deck. One of our gas bottles got ripped away from where it was mounted at the back of the cockpit. We didn't lose it (we had two seperate ropes holding it on, so it was still attached to the boat) but i was terrified that it would be washed away when I heard it come loose. We almost lost the outboard. I popped up to check on the situation after hearing a brand new noise and found it balancing over the water at the back of the boat, caught by our windvane steering. Our windgen refused to work because there was too much wind. It would start up but then stop itself immediately - I don't think it could handle going that fast. Multiple times the solar panel was flung up vertically as the wind got underneath it, which left it vulnerable to attacks from the windgen.


So we had a scary night. The boat was a mess, but one thing I can say was that it was a lot more secure than normal. Our lounge is completely filled with boxes of food ready for our time in the Tuamotus and our trip to Panama, but nothing much made it onto the floor. We had the cushions from the cockpit strewn around, but all the bits and pieces from around the boat mostly stayed where they were meant to be. Except for the navstation and the cupboard next to it, which are both next on my list to sort out anyway.

The other redeeming factor from this shitty passage was that I wasn't sick. Not even queasy, let alone hanging onto the boat with my head over the side, steering upwind with my foot as Garth is being flung around on the bow while he tries to launch our storm sail (which is the scene you would have come across had you witnessed our last big storm in NZ). I hope I'm just more used to the boat now, which is probably at least partly true. But i suspect it's the liquid sturgeon Liesbet passed along to me. I can only take a little bit at a time but I can take it often and the liquid works fast. So thank goodness I've finally found a seasickness remedy that works!

I think one of the only things that keeps people sailing after horrible passages like this is having a short memory. When you're wet and cold and hungry being tossed around in huge seas with the wind knocking the rigging around, you just want out. You want to go home to a house, drive your car to the store then sit in a bubble bath with a glass of wine and a cheese platter. You want to be anywhere else but trapped in a storm in the middle of the ocean. But once you're dry, the sun is out and you've slept and been fed, it doesn't seem so bad. The longer you're comfortable and happy, the further away that horrible passage seems. Its a beautiful day and you're surrounded by turquoise water. What storm? What horrible nightmare? It becomes less and less memorable until it's just a distant blur in the whole sailing experience. Then you go and do it all again, and the words "I HATE THIS BOAT" can be heard over the howling wind, as something breaks at the same time as we're soaked by a massive wave, and whatever Garth was holding goes flying out of his hand and sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

Coming through the pass at Fakarava was a little frightening, although only in hindsight. You're supposed to go through the passes at the right tide (you should enter at slack tide just before it starts coming in. Or if that's not possible, anything except the outgoing tide). The current inside the pass can get really strong so if the water is flowing against you, you can get into trouble if there's no room to turn around. You have to head into it at full speed to give yourself as much control as possible, so everything's moving really fast as well. Once the wind calmed down to about 20 knots, we finally decided to head on through. With no idea what the tide was doing or what was going on inside the scary little passageway (It wasn't actually that little compared to some we've been through, which was lucky).

The first time we attempted it the rain came back and we had to abort. Getting trapped in the lagoon with no visibility to watch out for pearl buoys or coral heads was even worse than being stuck at sea. The squall eventually cleared and we tried again, hoping that the next lot of rain behind us would hold off for a while. We got close enough to make sure there were no standing waves in the middle of the pass (that's the main indicator that you do not want to go through) and crossed our fingers. With not much visibility, we relied heavily on the charts. Which is never safe.

Garth was steering and I was downstairs trying to keep the water out of the boat, yelling up directions. When I did pop my head up we were in a washing machine, in amongst a mass of churned up water. A pod of dolphins were jumping all around us, playing in the waves. I didn't have time to watch them, but I did see a group of them through the water as they swam over the crest of a wave. Dolphins are always good luck!

Garth stayed to the side of the channel, trying to avoid the swirling vortexes of current and tide making a mess of everything in the middle, whilst still avoiding the reef that lined the sides. We eventually made it through safely, and the washing machine slowed to a halt. It was a bit nervewracking though - we need to find out the tide times!

Fakarava wasn't a South Pacific paradise until the bad weather passed. We had grey skies and squalls for the few days we stopped at the village of Rotoava, and spent most of that time recovering and hiding. We were going to check out of French Polynesia (sort out the papers and such) then make our way to Panama via a few more of the atolls. But no such luck. The Gendarmerie we had been told was there was actually nonexistent, so now we have to make our way further south to Hao. It could be about five days away, which is frustrating. So we'll stop here for a bit to recover and prepare the boat before heading off once the weather is right.


There were five other boats anchored outside the town, but none of them seemed particularly friendly. We did make friends with a remora though, who moved in underneath us. He must have thought we were a whale or something. He was always at the surface, circling us. So every time I looked down, there he was. He entertained us immensely.



The village is really sweet, with a post office and a few little shops (kind of like tiny corner stores). This is one of the bigger villages in the Tuamotus, so it's probably a good start to prepare us for the isolation to come. I really wanted to find a pearl farm, but it's the off season and they all seem to be closed or really far away. So we left the village after two days and started making our way south. The lagoon here is 27 miles long, with another pass at the bottom. There's supposed to be amazing snorkeling down there though, so hopefully we get a chance to go swimming before the wind changes to the right direction and we have to go with it.



Pearl farm

Xxx Monique

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