24th June to 15th July
Summary: – About 750 miles of light/medium breezes and the odd squall. Quick visit to another Gambier Island, Aukena, before heading west-north-westish to and through the Tuamotu archipelago via stops at atolls of Hao, Tahanea, and now, Fakarava. (And I shan’t expect you to remember these Polynesian names. I can’t.) For the long version, read on………
Before leaving the Gambier Islands I wanted to visit the little island gem called Aukena that my pilot book says has “…pretty anchorages beside shelving coral sand beaches etc etc….” (We harbour dreams of seclusion and beauty in the South Seas)., ”uninhabited now and overgrown with trees …cocks, now wild, still crow…remnants of villages….” – real Boys’ Own South Seas dreaming stuff!
Well, Henrietta and I pottered over to said island Aukena, dodging a profusion of pearl farm buoys, dropped anchor (it’s a bit rolly) and rowed ashore on hot, blue-skied sunny day to deserted sandy beach, lay down on pristine coral sand in pristine solitude amidst tropical beachside beauty and read a book. The dream fizzles out quite fast when sweat starts to trickle and you’re bitten by a bug. And anyway I was never one to pickle for long in idleness in tropical sunshine, so one bug bite and reading for an hour or two was ample. I explored as far as I could without a machete, and without Rambo biceps, scratched limbs a lot, before rowing back to Henrietta (well aware, if I wasn’t already, that I’m not cut out for deserted island life). In any case, it’s not a deserted island nowadays; a pearl farm has a few workers’ huts a mile or so from my anchorage, but I was soothed with a couple of days in the total tranquility of such a remote and beautiful spot.
A few days later weather looked ok for the sail north-westwards 470 miles to Hau in the Tuamotus. As you may not have heard of the Tuamotu Islands, I’ll quickly tell you that they comprise dozens of widely scattered coral atolls, about 1,000 miles SE to NW. I think I read somewhere that it’s the largest atoll archipelago in the world.
Book says about 40 atolls are permanently inhabited (but I’m sure it’s more); others are visited sometimes for people to collect coconuts (the copra is important for export); many are inaccessible to yachts, because there’s no navigable pass through the surrounding coral to the inner lagoon and nowhere to anchor outide (or, in the case of Mururoa and Fangataufa, because the French messed them up with nuclear bombs). Before accurate position-fixing with GPS, ships and yachts often came to grief crossing the area as the atolls are low-lying and often not seen till very close (too close I suppose, if you hit one). Raft Kon-Tiki was perhaps the best known casualty. Even with GPS you can’t afford to sleep for too long.
First stop for Henrietta and me was the island of Hao, and after a frustrating sail of four days from Gambiers (fickle winds, squalls etc), we just crept in before dark. My calculations suggested there’d be a gentle inflowing current into Hao’s huge lagoon, so it was a surprise and still something of a mystery why there was a brisk outflowing current. Water was gushing out at around seven knots. But with genoa pulling hard and engine near full blast – standing waves breaking hither and thither, sometimes going backwards….phew….just made it before dark! (The thing is with Hao’s lagoon: it’s big – about 25 miles by 6 miles, in area much like the Solent, and there’s only one narrow opening. If the ocean outside is rough, waves break over the coral reef into the lagoon and the water can only go out via the one opening. Chart says exit speeds up to 12 knots and pilot book says up to 20 knots, but I think they exaggerate.)
I’m very uneasy entering unknown territory in the dark. I don’t like the dark at the best of times, and especially so with coral heads lurking, and this huge empty unlit space ahead, and pulse still over-revving after the kerfuffle of getting in, so after entering Hao lagoon, I dropped anchor as soon as I could. Then, spent the night in range of some of the yappiest dogs you’ve ever heard. Apparently some local folk eat dog….’woof woof and frites’, but I think these were just guard dog pets unused to yachts anchoring off their homestead.
Next morning, I find there’s a little harbour a mile away – not mentioned in my book – and tie up with French, Dutch and German boats. It’s calm, secure, friendly and convenient; and in the evenings local people come and practice their dancing and music alongside. (There’s lots of dancing and music in the month before 14th July.)
That paragraph does not begin to convey the delightfulness of such places. It’s indescribably joyful to have a calm convenient place to tie up, plus young French family astern, where the young girls sing and chatter incessantly, and the elder one, about five, is happy to swing in the bosun’s chair for hours; and young German family at my bow (I’d met them earlier in the Gambier Islands) who seem to think nothing of having sailed here via Patagonia and the Chilean Canals. The boy Leonard, 12, did say he doesn’t like it when it’s very rough and “everyone gets stressy”; and the girl, Zoe, and her mother, Birgit, sometimes feel seasick and school work has to be suspended. And at dusk, on the harbour quay, the rhythm and energy and emotions of Polynesian dance are memories that’ll be with me a long time.
Anyway, the French military used Hao as the main support base for their nuclear test programme. The atoll was home for hundreds of Frenchmen until about 2000, and though the French left, there are now the remnants of their presence: houses (useful), jetties and harbour (useful), rusty junk (useless), crumbling rusty sheds (useless), suspicious debris (useless and maybe worse). Plus, I’m told they dumped loads of asbestos stuff and low grade nuclear stuff in the lagoon. The inhabitants of Hao are typically warm and friendly with visitors but they seem keen to be independent of France. Small wonder!
Bluewater sailing boats move a bit like Pooh sticks drifting down a gentle meandering stream: we meet and separate, meet again, move on…and finally go our separate ways. When I left Hao there were two boats I’d first met three weeks earlier in the Gambiers, the German family on “Kalibu” and Dutch couple, Herman and Rian, on “Lyra”. (Incidentally one of the most beautiful yachts I’ve ever seen, a fine Van de Stadt design somewhere near 50 foot, with an 80 foot mast.) I feel a complete novice in their presence. They’ve sailed here via Antarctica and they’re on their way to Alaska, after a lifetime running charter boats in Baltic and Mediterannean. Herman, a colourful Dutchman of 68 with round thick-lens glasses and general appearance of spritely benevolent maths professor, doesn’t like hot weather! I had both families for meal on “Henrietta” and know I have a lot to learn.
From Hao, it was a two day sail on to Tahanea, another big atoll, though this one doesn’t have any permanent residents, just occasional visitors to collect copra. I came because my book talks of “the multitude of coloured fish and the beauty of the coral”, and I later learn it’s a nature reserve because there’s a rare bird, a Tuamotu Sandpiper (but I’m not a proper ‘birdie’ so I wouldn’t know it even if it pecked my big toe). There were five yachts here when I arrived. It’s not busy like the Caribbean but I’m still mildly surprised to see others who sail to these out-of-the way places.
Oh goodness, this post is going on too long. I’ll quickly say that Tahanea did have lovely fishes, though on my own I don’t snorkle in the lagoon passes where they proliferate. The beaches I explored are a jumble of exquisite and varied coral. And here’s a pretty disgusting photo of hermit crabs munching on a dead fish…..And from Tahanea, I’ve sailed north to Fakarava, where I sense I’m getting near the main sailing thoroughfare through the Pacific. Sailing boats are all over the place and anchorages are busy with visiting boats – about a dozen boats where I’m anchored now. (I know emptier places in the Solent!). I’m told there are tourist resorts (little ones), dive shops, food shops and a bakery and places to eat, and I read there’s an ATM on the island – my first since Panama (no-one told me it would be so hard to get local money).
Finally, it’s worth saying that nothing I had read or heard prepared me for the scale and nature of these Pacific atolls. The three I’ve visited are among the larger ones and each feel almost like enclosed seas of their own, sheltered lagoons as much as 30 miles long and 15 miles wide; and yet, because the surrounding coral reef is so low, you cannot see from one side to the other. Within the lagoon there have been few hydrographic surveys, charts lack detail, and, outside marked channels, you proceed carefully with sun high behind you, watching for coral heads that can reach from the bed of the lagoon, 25 metres deep to nought metres – just like that!