A Strange World, An Old Land

Jun 05, 2010| 0 Comment

In The First Mate’s opinion, they are headed into a strange world — the atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago. From her reading, she has learned that they are also headed onto some extremely old soil. At least as the world turns, it is very old. She feels uneasy about this particular exploration. Her nautical idea of “Surf and Turf” is land she can see at a distance with mountains that rise from and above a distinct shoreline upon which the ocean foams and breaks where it should and as it should. Nothing she has read about these atolls fits this description. It’s not that she does not want to go. She is just mildly apprehensive.

The European explorers who first stumbled upon these islands in the 1600’s called them the “Dangerous Archipelago”. One could navigate around the group in relative safety, but once inside the “Labyrinth”, as it was also called, these 78 atolls were a minefield. Ancient wrecks litter many of the reefs to attest to this. Even with the advent of radar and GPS, modern wrecks still occur with frequency. In clear weather, an atoll is only visible from 7 to 10 miles away, though it often is not the atoll itself that one sees. It is the tops of the coconut palms waving in the breeze. In rain or at night, that same visibility can be reduced to a mere 100 yards, hardly enough room to take evasive action. Radar can pick up the wave action of white water above a submerged reef, but if the seas are calm and there is no such wave action — well, Sailor Beware!

“What exactly is an atoll?” questions The First Mate. Her research commences. An atoll is the final stage in the life cycle of a tropical volcanic island. “An island has a life cycle? How strange,” she marvels as she delves on into the mystery. When the volcano or volcanos forming a particular island stop spewing forth lava, the island stops growing. Now other forces like rain, wind and waves take precedence. Instead of being built up, the island is being broken down and eroded. A side benefit to this process is the creation of soil which allows plants and eventually other life forms to take hold and thrive. The volcanic island may look to be living and thriving, but forces are at work pushing it toward its demise. The earth’s crust upon which this volcanic island is sitting begins to subside. Amazing as it may sound, the island is slowing sinking into the ocean. That a huge mountain of an island could actually disappear completely under the sea from which it first arose is indeed a strange phenomena thinks The First Mate.

As the island begins its slow descent, coral reefs begin to form in the waters along its periphery. The living organisms that create a reef are tiny coral polyps. A coral polyp builds itself a limestone house. When it eventually dies, the rigid house becomes the structural support for the next generation. Little by very little, the reef is built up. Coral reefs are the oldest known ecological systems in the world, and they only occur between 25 degrees north and 25 degrees south latitude or basically within 1500 miles from the equator. Needing warmer waters, they never grow deeper than 150 feet, and though they also need sunlight, they never rise above the surface of the water. The rough edges of the coral reef nearer the ocean’s surface act as a catch-all for all manner of oceanic debris. Thrown up by storms, surf and wind, this debris is built up layer upon layer until exposed surface emerges. This “land” of debris never gets very high, usually not more than 4 – 5 feet above sea level. Nor is it very wide, rarely exceeding 300 – 400 yards from one side to the other. It is not good for much either. Made up mostly of coral limestone, there are few plants other than coconuts that can survive, but land it is. Lurking out there either just below the water’s surface or barely above — Sailor Beware!

As the island sinks, the ocean greedily fills in the space created between the receding shoreline and the reef. A lagoon is formed. On this map, the island of Tahiti (lower left) is colored in while the atolls of the Tuomotus are shown as irregular circles. There is land mass on Tahiti. What little land mass there is on the atolls is so negligible that a line showing the rough outline of the lagoon enclosed by its reef suffices.  

Sheltered by the deflecting presence of the reef, the lagoon thus created is quieter and calmer than the ocean outside its borders. Rarely, though, is a lagoon completely landlocked. For various reasons, gaps will have formed creating what look like a necklace of islets. These separate pieces of land are called motus, and like a line of tombstones, these motus mark in commemorative silence the ghostly perimeter of what was once there. It is the gaps between, though, that have fooled many an unwary sailor. The opening between two motus, which so seductively beckons entry into the safe haven of a lagoon, could hide a boat-gutting coral reef lying unseen a few feet below the surface. On the other hand, the gap or pass could be deep enough for an ocean liner to safely cross. To locate a secure anchorage, one must find the right pass into the correct lagoon. One must not cut any corners in doing so. One must target and line up correctly for entry, and one must do so at a time when the tidal current, either outflowing or inflowing, is at its weakest. Of the 78 Tuomotu atolls, only about 31 of them have passes, and even fewer of those possess passes deep enough for a sailboat, especially one with a 9-foot keel.  Avante Beware!

To The First Mate, these atolls sound nasty, ominous and (should she admit it?) boring. She’s a mountain girl after all. She cannot imagine being anywhere on land without a distant mountain to draw her imagination. Nothing sounds inviting to her about these low-lying, narrow motus with their stoney, limey soil unable to grow anything worthwhile and with land so dry that the only available fresh water is what Mother Nature doles out from the skies above. “Why then do cruisers even bother with these atolls?” The First Mate questions. She is going to have to wait until they get there to figure out the answer to that question.

Sunday, May 23rd – 0730 – Anchor is raised. We depart Daniel’s Bay on Nuku Hiva and head offshore. Our anticipated next stop is approximately 550nm down the ocean road or about 4 days away. We are headed to the Tuomotu atoll of Kauehi.


The Captain sets a course so that we will sail down the west coast of Ua Poa. Into the late afternoon, we marvel at Ua Poa’s incredible skyline as it passes down the port side of Avante. The First Mate drinks in those mountain peaks knowing she will not see the likes of them for a while.

Shortly before our late afternoon showers on the aft deck and just before we would normally bring in our fishing line (for no one wants to be caught showering when a fish strikes the line), a fish does strike the line. It is a beautiful Yellowtail Tuna. Crew Mate Tom has maneuvered it close to the boat, and The Captain has positioned himself at the stern with the gaff, but our tuna stays out of range and quickly swims under the boat cutting the line on the prop. Our fish is gone! Fresh fish for dinner! Tuna steaks, Sushi, Poisson Cru … we are disconsolate.

Very occasionally, as the sun sinks below the horizon and if there are no clouds and a bunch of other factors are rightly alined, there is a flash of green light as the sun sets. Crew Mate Tom has seen it many times, but The Captain and The First Mate have not, even though they have stood out there watching and straining to see it. Tonight, it flashes! The Captain witnesses it and is pleased. The First Mate is below deck toweling off after her shower. Disappointed, yes, but tomorrow is another day.

Sunday and Monday are relatively calm sailing days with fairly light winds. Tuesday, in the early morning hours, we run into several rain cells with variable winds, but by mid-morning we experience a great sail in 14 – 16 knot winds from the east. It is delightful. Then, the weather turns as one must expect at anytime at sea. By 1500, we are racing ahead of the clouds in 25-knot winds.  We put in the first reef and partially reef the jib. The sailing motto is “Reef early.  Reef often.” In other words, Be Prepared.  We are, but within 15 minutes, those hefty winds drop to a quiet 12 knots. It does not always happen this way, but we were prepared and always glad for it. It is easier to shake out a reef when not needed than it is to put one in under howling winds and boisterous seas. By early evening, winds settle in at 16 – 19 knots offering us a great night of sailing. We cover 181nm that day, and by 2400, our position is 45nm northeast of Takaroa, the most northeasterly of the Tuomotu atolls.

Wednesday, May 25th – 0600 – We are passing between the atolls of Takaroa and Tikei. Although each is under 20nm away, neither shows up on the distant horizon. Our pleasant sailing appears to be over, for by 0800 seas are building along with the 20 – 25 knot winds. Waves are hitting us just forward of the beam. By 0930, we are getting wet. Crew Mate Tom, sitting in the companionway, is swamped by a wave. Spluttering up, he is not happy. It takes a second wave washing over and down the companionway steps for us to come to our senses. Close the hatch cover, dummies! That we do and, with some mopping up below, manage to keep things relatively dry down there. It is a wet, wild ride in heavy seas with winds gusting to over 25 knots.

1420 – Land Ho! Just as the books stated, the low-lying atoll of Kauehi is spotted at a distance of 7nm, just off our port bow. We alter course to head down the west side of the atoll.

1545 – We are aware that we are facing a timing issue with reaching the pass and getting to the anchorage inside the lagoon. The heavy seas have slowed us down. We may run out of daylight. The pass is still 8nm away.  Seas remain high, and the wind is on our nose. There is no way we can make it before sunset if we continue tacking into this wind. We turn on the engine, furl the sails and motor along the southeast coast of Kauehi.

1745 – We are approaching the pass. With 30 minutes to go before sunset, it will be possible to get through the pass in daylight. Getting through the pass, however, is only part of our concern. Once inside the lagoon, we still have to cross 8nm of the lagoon before we reach a good anchorage. It will be dark for most of the stretch across the lagoon and quite dark when we reach an unfamiliar anchorage. All the books talk of the inadvisability of navigating around these atolls and lagoons in the dark. There are coral heads, fishing pots and pearl farms all lying out there, invisible in the dark. We don’t like motoring around anywhere after dark unless it’s out on the open sea. What to do? A possible anchorage is mentioned on the outside of the reef. We see no such possible spot for an anchorage, though that does not matter, for the turbulent seas and high winds negate any thoughts of anchoring outside the atoll. The alternative is to head out to sea to toss about all night waiting it out until dawn. Having spent a rough day thinking about a quiet night at anchor in the still lagoon of our first atoll, not a one of us is enthusiastic about rollicking around the ocean all night. 

The pass itself is deep and wide, but mariners are warned to avoid the very strong current at work in this pass during a flooding tide. Flooding tide? Everything The First Mate has read about these passes and their currents maintains one must enter on slack tide. The First Mate cut her nautical teeth on the rapids and currents in the Pacific Northwest, but we always timed them for slack tide. If we want to get into the much calmer lagoon today, we don’t have the option of waiting for slack tide. That will not occur until well after dark. We will have to traverse the pass during a flood tide. 

A few miles ahead of us, we see another large sailboat also motoring toward the pass. We watch it enter the pass and monitor its progress intently. Nothing happens that alarms us. From three miles away, we see no jolting, lurching or sudden change of direction. It appears to have gone through the pass smoothly and easily. The Captain now feels confident that we also can safely go through the pass during flood tide. 

The First Mate is not so sure about this venture, but The Captain is confident. The pass and the channel across the lagoon to the anchorage are supposed to be well marked. Once inside the lagoon, the channel to the anchorage is charted in detail. Also GPS and our charts all are in agreement on position as we approach the pass. We are going to do it.

1715 – The Captain wants to go right down the centerline of the pass for as long as possible to keep us in the safest position and to be able to get a good assessment of the accuracy of the charts, but we are speeding down a curving coastline racing darkness and don’t want to lose time by swinging offshore to get a leisurely lineup on centerline. He directs The First Mate to keep the boat parallel to the coast and at a right angle to the opening. He knows the boat handles well, and he knows she can handle the helm. As we enter the turbulence caused by the swift inflowing current of the flooding tide, the force becomes immediately apparent. At the helm, The First Mate can feel the vibration caused by the churning waters coming up from the rudder to the wheel. When we reach the centerline of the pass, The First Mate is told to make an abrupt 90 degree left turn down that center line and to hold that center line. This is the strongest, fastest current she has ever experienced. At first, it takes all her strength to hold the wheel and keep Avante on that center line. She is about to call for help when suddenly the wheel locks in place. She could not move it now even if she stood on it! Fortunately, she does not have to move it or even tweak it. Avante is caught in the current and heading straight through the middle of the pass. We are through the pass, but The First Mate still cannot budge the wheel. It is locked. Again, she is about to call for help when a sudden snap, like a metal on metal sort of pop is heard and the tension on the wheel releases. The Captain had yet to call for any direction change which is good, for her fear now is that we may no longer have wheel, cable and rudder attached. Holding this fear at bay, she notes that we are in much calmer, deep water and the peaceful shore inside this lagoon lies a reasonable swimming distance away if necessary. Finally, The Captain calls for a 15 degree turn to the right. Tremulously, she turns the wheel. Rudder turns. Avante turns. Relief all but weakens the knees. We are through the pass in one piece, and lowest depth noted was 50 feet. Nobody had time to monitor the current, but it was fast, far faster than The First Mate cares to experience ever again.

1730 – We may be through the pass, but we still have to navigate across the lagoon to the anchorage. Staying in the channel as indicated on the charts is critical, especially for a boat with a deep keel. There are lots of unmarked hazards like coral heads just outside of the channel. We head across the lagoon slowly and carefully. Within 15 minutes of shooting the pass, we are in total darkness, but we have 2 charts and a good GPS position on each. Amazingly, they agree. A flashing red light is seen ahead. Our charts show a flashing red buoy marking a rock just left of course, but the light we are seeing does not seem right. It does not appear close enough and is not moving the way it should as we approach it. We finally realize that the light we are seeing is on the distant shore, not the flashing red light which should be much nearer. It is obvious now that not all the navigational aids have been maintained, but rocks lying just below the surface do not just disappear even if their flashing red lights do. We continue ahead cautiously. 

1845 – We have crossed most of the lagoon, but are still 1/2nm from the desired anchorage just off the village. Knowing now that many of the aids to navigation are either missing or not working, we are apprehensive about an approaching reef. It is a very shallow reef and looks ominous on the charts. The Captain would really like to know exactly where that reef is, but we will not see it in the dark. We scan the water with our flashlights, but can pick up nothing. As we near the far shore of the atoll, the channel begins to get shallower. When we reach a spot with 65 feet of water under us, The Captain declares that we have tempted King Neptune enough for one night. We turn just out of the channel and drop anchor right where we are. It may not be the best anchorage, but it is calm, and we are safe. Time for a beer and for a weary crew to call it a day! 

1855 – Captain’s Log:  “Anchored in the atoll of Kauehi. Total Passage from Marquesas to Tuomotus was 558nm and took 3.5 days. Crew ready for night swim and a relaxing dinner after a passage that gave us a little bit of everything from light wind to strong wind, rain squalls, wet ride, atoll pass in current and nighttime approach to unfamiliar anchorage.”

Thursday, May 27th – Woke up, went on deck and surveyed our surroundings. From The First Mate’s perspective, it is as strange a world as she expected. No matter which direction she looks, the world she sees is flat. She feels like she is in the middle of a negative edge swimming pool. No wonder mankind first thought the world was flat. That idea must have originated right here in these atolls. Go to the edge, and you will fall off. No doubt about it!

The lagoon we are in seems huge;  yet one can follow the circle of flat motus in the distance as they outline the edges of what was once a volcanic island.  The furthest motus hardly rise above the horizon. It is strange to think that somewhere below us is land that once rose steeply skyward like the soaring peaks of the Marquesas. The Captain informs her that our perch on Avante’s deck is higher above sea level than most of the land mass now visible around us.  Looking about, she finds nothing to challenge that!


We spend the morning cleaning up Avante after our passage. In the early afternoon, we move to the recommended anchorage which is located below the small town of Tearavero. We anchor there among several other cruisers.


Dinghy launched, we head into town to explore. Walking down the main street in the late afternoon is a very quiet activity. We see hardly a soul. 


The coconut palm trees that fringe these islands are the only protection from the winds that sweep down and across this flat land, but there is only so much buffering a few swaying palm fronds can offer. We note that most homes have strong ropes or wires running from rooftops to ground. Quite an ingenious solution to a potentially disastrous problem! Before Europeans made their impact on these islands, woven palm fronds and bark were the structural elements of the homes. Though it may have been a time consuming activity back then to replace a woven roof or a wall, it could readily and cheaply be done, for the fibrous materials were always available. Things changed with the acceptance of metal roofs, solid walls and glass windows.

We also note that every home has at least one large black tank sitting next to it with a complex of pipes and tubes running between rooftop to tank and tank to house. This is a land without fresh streams and underground sources of fresh water. These people are totally dependent upon what falls from the skies. Collecting it, conserving it and keeping it clean are a way of life for these inhabitants, and drought is always a very real possibility.


On our return to the dinghy, we walk pass the local church. Its doors are open so we peak inside. What a delightful surprise! The inside is a bright mix of colors. Most interesting are the light fixtures created from a wire framework of seashell macramé.  Garlands of seashells are gayly strung across the ceiling. Obviously there are a few very talented souls living in this community. The First Mate is impressed with the amount of handwork that went into everything she sees. This is no old-fashioned New England-style “fire and brimstone” ministry. Love and joy are present here.


On a walk along the beach the next day, we see a woman intently scanning the shallow waters.  Occasionally she would pend down and pick up something small which she placed in a bottle. Puzzled, Crew Mate Tom asks her what she is doing. She shows him the small, white shells she is collecting. At our feet is the source of all those shells that went into the macramé and garlands in the church. Of course, like Tom Sawyer’s fence painting helpers, we three have to get in on the fun. Those little white shells are hard to see, but Tom and Bill manage to find a few to donate to her collection. She is delighted.


Given what resources exist or, more correctly, do not exist on these atolls, it is no surprise to learn that there is no booming economy here, and many of the residents are dependent upon French welfare. The 4 main industries are fishing, copra, black pearl farming and tourism. The fishing industry has recently picked up with the growing population in Papeete, and enterprising local fishermen are heading further out to sea to harvest their catches for the regular pick-up flights running between Papeete and the few atoll airports.

Copra is the white pulp of the coconut that has been left out in the sun to dry. Great flat tables of drying coconut shell can be seen around homes throughout the islands. A copra boat periodically arrives to pick up the copra which is eventually shipped to a processing plant. There the oil is extracted for use in such products as soap, margarine and nitroglycerin. As the demand for copra has fallen, the French government subsidizes the local industry. There are not as many drying platforms in use as formerly, but many still do collect and patiently crack the thick shell of the coconut. Why not?  The real work is done by the sun!

Black Pearls! Not all black pearls are black. In fact, they are not really black at all. They come in an amazing range of colors, even white. The name “black pearl” has nothing to do with the pearl. It comes from the black lips of the oyster used to produce the pearl and which thrives in the nutrient rich waters of the atolls. 


The first cultured black pearl farms were started in the 1960’s, but it was not until the 1980’s that the black pearl boom began. Today, the pearl industry is of vital importance to the economy and the life of the atolls. With the increase in jobs provided by the many farms scattered through out the lagoons, local inhabitants, especially the young, have been encouraged to remain on the islands rather than head to the big city of Papeete for opportunity.


Looking across at a pearl farm off the shoreline, The First Mate thinks that if she were an oyster, she would be mighty happy to roost in these clear, clean waters!


The First Mate was only marginally interested in black pearls at first, but the more she reads, the more she gets into it. She wants to see these pearls, maybe even purchase her own bauble or two. Crew Mate Tom is interested. The Captain is not, but as it is such an important part of the Tuomotu experience, he will suffer to look. We learn that the mayor of Tearavero runs a black pearl operation and from him, one can see and chose your very own black pearls. “Go see his wife, who runs the local épicerie, to set up an appointment.” That we do. 

We meet at his home to examine his collection. He has boxes full with bags of pearls. We are interested in learning about the different grades, but it turns out that he only has the lower grades because he sells all his high-quality pearls at auctions in Japan. The First Mate does not require a pearl or two of the very finest quality, but these pearls will not do. Even her untrained eye can see the imperfections and lack of luster. Still, we have an interesting time sorting through the assortment. More time and far more interest than The Captain thinks any pearl of any quality should warrant!

Saturday, May 29th – 0920 – Another atoll is awaiting our arrival. The Captain goes forward to raise the anchor. At the helm, The First Mate wonders what is taking so long. Is there a problem? Not really. Just a lot of seaweed scummed around the snubber line and anchor chain, and it is taking quite a while to wash off with the salt water hose. The Captain does not want a lot of sticky, smelly seaweed all over the bow and in the anchor locker. Task completed. Anchor up. We motor down the channel to the lagoon entrance.

East of the pass is supposed to be a good spot for snorkeling. The First Mate has learned that the main attraction of the atolls for tourists is the underwater world around the reefs. Diving and snorkeling opportunities are abundant. The reefs are beautiful, and the number and variety of fish swimming among them is phenomenal. Little fish and big fish. The First Mate does not mind little fish, especially bright, multi-colored little fish. It’s those other fish, the great big dark ones that bother her. She firmly believes that if the intent had been for her to swim in the ocean among those big fish, Mother Nature would have equipped her with gills and really big teeth. That not being the case, she actually is quite happy to leave the big fish to their ocean, but since underwater sightseeing is the thing to do out here, she will give it her tentative best. Crew Mate Tom is much more into fish voyeurism and longingly eyes this snorkeling spot where other boats are anchored. The Captain, however, has his mind set on a new atoll and not another night in the same atoll. We must leave now if we want to arrive at Fakarava before dark. He is not eager to repeat our previous night landing in an unfamiliar atoll.

Upon arriving at the pass, we circle around while we assess the lay of the “water”. Right now, the current is outgoing, and we are about 1 1/2 hours ahead of slack tide. Recalling those fearful moments at the helm when the wheel froze during the crossing of this same pass, The First Mate would prefer to see not a ripple on the ocean’s surface. Though the water is churned up by the compressing force of the gap out to the sea, it does not really look that bad. It certainly does not look like as wild as it did in the fading light three nights ago.

The sun is shining. The sky is blue. All seems right with the world. The Captain decides to go for it. We turn toward the pass, aiming Avante down the centerline.  Increasing speed slightly to maintain steerage, we motor smoothly through the pass with the ebbing tide. This time we monitor the flow of the current. It was only about 2 knots. No big deal. We saw that and more in the Pacific Northwest.


The east side of pass with shrub-covered motu and barely exposed reef lying below the white, foaming surf. Here it looks more like an impressionist painting and does not at all highlight the danger it could hold for a misaligned boat.


1135 – Raise sails, turn off engine and head toward Fakarava in a 12-knot wind from the east.

1415 – Land Ho! Fakarava is spotted about 10nm ahead. Unfortunately, winds are weak. We are making slower progress than hoped and are losing our race to be anchored before sunset.

1530 – As we approach the northeast corner of Fakarava, weather is moving in on us. Clouds are building and so is the wind. With a 17-knot wind, our speed increases, and arrival in daylight is looking more promising.

1635 – Garvae Pass is just ahead, and everything looks good. We turn on the engine as a backup (just in case). Center ourselves down the middle of the pass, and at 1645, under full sails and speeding along at 9.5 knots, we sail through the pass. It was glorious! It was thrilling! What a sight we were, if only someone had been around to witness it! We turn off the engine, make a left toward the anchorage and continue sailing across the lagoon.

1800 – The sun has set with darkness quickly following, but we are anchored in the lagoon of Fakarava atoll below the village of Rotoava.


Sunday, May 30th – We dinghy into town to explore. Being Sunday, everything is closed, and the town is quiet and peaceful.  Most of the people we see are outside the local church waiting for the start of the service.


The First Mate peaks inside with hopes of hearing the beautiful singing they had heard in the Marquesas. This congregation is a bit off key, proving that not everyone in French Polynesia has perfect pitch.


We pass a small Black Water Pearl shop which, to The Captain’s delight, is closed.


We discover that there is a fund-raising event starting about 1:00 which will feature local crafts and foods. While waiting for it to start, Crew Mate Tom finds a local phone for a call home. Will it work? Will it take his credit card? It does and soon he is talking to wife Janet.


The Captain and The First Mate find a spot in the shade of a coconut palm and not far from the local wi-fi antenna. Connected to a very slow service, they attempt to catch up with news from home.


The fund-raising event is held in a large, open-air building. Palm fronds have been plaited and gayly hung. 


There are several tables set up with displays of locally made shell and bead work. Each artisan has her particular style. The First Mate is fascinated with the intricate designs the women have created. She purchases 2 necklaces to wear with the Polynesian pareus she has added to her boat apparel.


We sample a sweet cake, which turns out to be a bit too chewy and too sweet for our taste. An active table of bingo is bringing in donations, and to keep everything lively, various local bands are scheduled to perform throughout the afternoon.


We return to the boat for an afternoon swim and a snorkel at a near-by reef. Not bad. No big fish lurking around, but the water is a bit murky. There also are not that many brightly colored little fish. The First Mate does manage to inadvertently get too close to some coral. She had not even realized she had done so until later when an itch on her leg, which she first thought was a mosquito bite, soon spread down her shin. Unconsciously, she itches and scratches until she is red and bloody. There is something about coral that does not agree with her system. She still bares an ugly scare from a nasty encounter off an Hawaiian coast to prove it. Just another reason, other than big, dark fish, to further dampen her under ocean enthusiasm.


Monday, May 31st – We are going to visit a pearl farm!  Even The Captain is interested in this, for like snorkeling, this is something one does in the atolls.


The requirements, conditions and steps that go into creating the perfect pearl are many and intricate, though it only takes about 3 years to reap a pearl harvest.

The first step is to insert the seed pearl, and that takes a steady hand and trained eye to open the oyster to insert the seed pearl.


The growth and quality of the pearls are checked at prescribed intervals. Defective pearls and oysters are discarded while successively larger pearls are inserted into good producing black-lipped oysters until at the end of 3 years, voila! a final black pearl is harvested, graded and sent to market.


That, of course, is where the real fun begins — for certain people, that is. The pearls sold here are a better quality than we had seen earlier. Though some simple settings and jewelry designs are offered, mostly one is buying loose pearls. The First Mate choses simple pearl earrings and a closely matched pearl on a thin silver necklace. Crew Mate Tom finds two perfectly matched pearls for wife Janet to have mounted for earrings. 


While Gunter, the owner, is finishing the sales and wrapping our purchases, Tom walks to the local épicerie. Upon his return, we are all treated to cold Hinanos, the local Tahitian beer.  This beer purchase is the one that most meets The Captain’s approval, especially the alacrity with which it was accomplished.

Tuesday, June 1st – Have 6 weeks gone by so fast? Crew Mate Tom is leaving us today. There is a small airport here on Fakarava where an island shuttle will fly Tom to Papeete to catch his flight to the States. Yesterday, Tom had inquired about scheduling a taxi to take him to the airport which, though not far, was further than one would like to walk carrying a duffle bag of boat gear. There are no taxis on Fakarava, but no problem. The universally acknowledged extended thumb will quickly secure him a free ride to the airport.  Doubtful of such quick service and expecting to either be waiting a while or even to be walking to the airpot, we three head ashore earlier than Tom would normally feel necessary. He and his duffle bag are hardly on the road, thumb has not been extended, before a car stops to inquire if he is indeed going to the airport and would he like a ride. How wonderful! Yes, he would appreciate a lift to the airport. We should not have been surprised, for consistently throughout both the Marquesas and the Tuomotus we have been greeted with warmth and friendliness. As different as these two archipelagos are, the predominant attitude of openness and good will prevails on both.

Tom is everything and more than one seeks in a Crew Mate on an ocean passage. Other than the obvious necessary requirements of being a competent sailor with a readiness to help when and where needed, what else makes a good crew mate? An up-beat and unflappable personality, that’s what! Thank you, Tom, for a great passage of adventure and discovery. We hope to see you and Janet on Avante again in the near future.

The Captain and The First Mate continue their westward passage to Tahiti, though alas sans camera! As far as The First Mate is concerned, a travel blog is just a lot of stultifying words without photos to add interest and life to the story, but this blog is also her journal. She half jokingly says that it will be with her in some nursing home lying on her lap as she drowses in her rocking chair.  Occasionally, she will look through it, dimly remembering, and say, “Oh, my, I did all that? What a life this lady had!” Therefore, sans camera, here is the journal of our last few days in the Tuomotus ….

Wednesday, June 3rd – We motor across the lagoon to a spot NE of Passe Tumakohua, a rare second navigable pass into the atoll of Fakarava, and anchor among 2 other boats. There is supposed to be good reef snorkeling here. We are in for a new experience:  Drift Snorkeling. Launch the dinghy into the tidal current, first making sure it is not flowing at its very fastest Mach-whatever volume. Then appropriately attired in fins, goggles and snorkel and holding onto a rope tied to the dinghy, slip into the water and float along with the current. At first, we drift slowly over a reef just a few feet below us.  The shapes and colors of the coral are amazing as are the number and variety of fish. Now that The First Mate has the hang of this, The Captain takes us out into the pass itself which is some 50 feet deep. No more reassuring reef just a few feet below her. Instead there is a precipitous drop into a dark canyon, but not so dark that one cannot see all kinds of fish. Bright ones, dark ones, little ones, big ones. You name it, and it’s swimming around down there apparently enjoying the current just like the voyeuristas above them. The fish appear to be swimming in strictly controlled layers. The upper layers are occupied by the smaller fish, nonchalantly enjoying their stroll through the pass. To The First Mate’s ever widening eyes, the fish seem to increase in size the deeper she allows herself to look, and the bigger the fish are, the more regimented their lineup is as they swim through the pass. 

There, at the very deepest and darkest layer, is a wide line of sharks, about 4 sharks across. She cannot see how many layers of them there are, but it is a lot! There is no mistaking that characteristic body waggle as they propel themselves through the water. The line stretches into the distance. How many are there? Where did they all come from?  Whatever are they doing? Whatever is she doing here? The Captain can serve as shark bait and stay tethered to his dinghy like a carrot on a string. Not The First Mate. In one swift motion, with as little splashy noise as possible, she is back in that dinghy where all non-fish belong. Curiosity getting the better of her, she tries bending over the side of the dinghy and poking her mask into the water, but that does not work. Her head keeps popping out of the water. Then she drapes her body over the edge of the dinghy. Half in the water, half out. Not the most photogenic position for a lady, but it works. She is fascinated by the many layers of fish and by the fact that it must not be dinner time. Everyone is minding his own business. Given all these fish, one might expect to watch or even become part of a feeding frenzy.  Little fish gobbled up by slightly bigger fish who are then devoured by even bigger fish and so on up to the biggest of them all. To her utter amazement, the biggest of them all are swimming along in their corridor down there without a concern in the world and apparently without a hunger pang. Those sharks seem to have no interest in any of the other fish, and all the other fish appear unconcerned about them. The First Mate shrugs her shoulders and quietly slips back into the water. Rational or not, she tells herself that since she does not show up on any fish’s food chart, and since the fish below are presently unconcerned about who eats who, she will not be eaten either. She does not want to miss the show! It is beautiful, fascinating and mysterious down there. What a neat experience! Sure she will do it again, and they float through two more times that afternoon.

This proved to be a great anchorage, and we decide to stay another day to enjoy it and to do more of the drift snorkeling. Though The First Mate is probably never going to jump up and down clambering to go swimming in the ocean, she does enjoy this drift snorkeling. Ghosting by, silently above them, the fish don’t even know you’re there, and in her mind, that’s as it should be.

On the near motu guarding the east side of the passage is a small dive center. Word goes out by radio Thursday morning that the owner is inviting all cruisers to a pot-luck dinner. He is offering a thatched roof shelter, tables, chairs and music. We bring the food and drink. Word apparently was sent out further than our little anchorage of 3, for by late afternoon more than 20 boats have arrived. What fun! The First Mate brings sliced duck à L’orange over a tangy wild rice, but, to her surprise, just about every other dish, hot or cold, is a variation of pasta and beans or pasta and beans. Typical cruisers’ fare, she eventually learns, but definitely not her fare! As she places her casserole on the table, a woman asks her what she has brought. The dish is described, and the woman quickly picks up her dish and puts it aside. Why? “The kids eat first, and the kids aren’t getting this!” the woman exclaims. We get a chuckle out of this, but The Captain makes sure he helps himself to his lion’s share of duck! We meet several very interesting people, including the owner of the dive center and have a great time exchanging histories on where we all hail from, where we had been and where we are going next. Typical cruisers’ talk.

Friday, June 4th – CHANGE OF PLANS – Nothing about a cruiser’s schedule can be written in stone. In fact, the worst accidents are often associated with a cruiser pushing through on a tight schedule when he should have prudently delayed. We want to see one more atoll before we head to Tahiti. Our plan is to leave today and sail an overnight passage to the atoll of Rangiroa. It is the largest atoll in the Tuomotus and the second largest in the world with a circumference of 100 miles. We are looking forward to exploring it before continuing on to Tahiti. Checking the GRIB files, which show expected wind and rain patterns over an extended period of time and our other weather sources, we observe that a period of very calm weather is expected in a few days. If we carry through with our visit to Rangiroa, by the time we leave on Monday, this calm weather will be upon us. In the light wind conditions shown, we will have to motor all 250nm (about 42 hours) to Tahiti. How mind numbingly boring, and what a waste of fuel! This is a sail boat, not a motor boat! We decide to skip Rangiroa. Instead, we will spend the morning preparing for the passage and leave this afternoon for Tahiti. We will not see Rangiroa, but we will gain a few days to tour more of Tahiti.

1345 – Anchor is stuck! No matter what we do, the anchor will not release from whatever it is tangled with down there. This happened to us in Mexico, but at that time, the water was so murky and dark that The Captain could not dive on it to see what the problem was. This time the water is clear. Donned in his snorkel gear and though we are in 50 feet of water, he is able to dive down deep enough to see that the anchor is wedged behind a large coral head. Back onboard, he now knows in which direction to maneuver the boat to free the anchor. Anchor up! Away we go but not too fast because the pass ahead has a very shallow spot. 

1440 – We creep over the shallowest spot with a mere 12.5 feet of water over the coral reef, meaning we only had about 3 feet between the bottom of Avante’s keel and that coral. We timed our crossing for a rising tide, just in case.

Our last pass in the L’archipel des Tuomotu is completed, and as we leave these atolls, The First Mate reflects upon her earlier thoughts of these islands: old land, strange topography and possibly boring.  She remembers standing on the deck of Avante the morning after our nighttime arrival. She was mesmerized by her first view of this land. It was in every way a strange vista. 


The landscape stretched flatly ahead and around her with little to distinguish it but the varying heights of palm trees and brush. The broad lagoon in which we were anchored felt more like a huge pond or lake with a sense of the surreal in its quiet stillness and brilliant shades of blue. Scanning the necklace of motus marching along in the distance like a line of stepping stones, it was eery to think that these mark the shoreline of what once was, so very, very long ago, a mountainous island. 


Yes, these Tuomotu Islands are definitely strangely different, but boring? As Crew Mate Tom stated after our visit to a second atoll, these islands have a way of “growing on you”. Their appeal is subtle. Your eyes open to the beauty of the land and its surrounding waters. You want to see more and explore more, and there is plenty to see and explore. No, the Tuomotu Atolls are not boring. Strange and so very different they may be from any land that she has ever known, seen or walked, they are also very familiar, for here is where you will find that classic desert island paradise so often pictured. White sand, palm trees swaying and unbelievably sparkling blue waters … it is all here! The only thing The First Mate has still to find is that hammock swaying between 2 palm trees, but that will have to await her next visit.

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