French Polynesia – The Tuamotus

Ahe Atoll

When we left Daniel’s Bay on May 19, 2016 we knew it was going to be at least a four day trip to the Tuamotu Archipelagos.  We left just after sunrise to get out before the bugs began to litter our boat again.  As we motored out of the bay entrance, we could tell there was some weather heading our way, since the waves were already up.  We powered through the entrance almost redlining the motor to make headway.  We were sad to see this amazing island fade off into the distance as we headed further and further out into the ocean.  We would have stayed longer and visited more islands but knowing that your adult children were going to be meeting us in Tahiti in a few weeks, we didn’t want to take a chance.  When your life and travel plans are in the hands of Mother Nature, you have to plan a big “buffer zone” into your life.

The waves really didn’t get any better for a few days and the winds were all over the place.  I recall that we had to change course a few times to miss some rather large squalls.  We finally saw the atoll of Ahe the fourth day out.

This was our first approach through an atoll pass and just a couple of months before we arrived, a sailboat washed up on some reefs nearby.  We were on high alert and wanted to time the tides perfectly.

We made it through the pass with no worries.  It was actually easier than we thought it would be.

We pulled up to a cute little village of Tenukupara and set our anchor.  As usual, we got the motor on the dinghy and dinked on over to the municipal pier.  Being a stranger in a strange land is always exciting.

Melissa and I walked through the small village and really didn’t know where to start.  A bunch of woman villagers waved us over to their building and motioned for us to look around.  They had a bunch of jewelry and handmade items laying on tables.  I guess some of the larger cruise ships must make it here because it looked pretty organized.  Since we are on a budget, we just browsed and tried to speak in very broken French when we had a question.  The women were very helpful but we decided we had seen everything (twice).

We walked by a little sandwich stand and we asked if anyone in town spoke English, so we could get a better “lay of the land”.  The young woman said in broken English, “Down street to blue and yellow house, Marita know English.”  We thought, sure, why not?

We walked down the streets for a while and finally ended up in the location the lady referred us to.  We saw two young men and asked, “Marita?”  They pointed to the house on the water.  Two young women were sitting down below the house on stilts and they looked inquisitively at us.  “Marita?” again.

“Marita!” they yelled.  Down the stairs came this young woman and said in perfect English, “Can I help you?”  “Yes” we replied, “we were told you were the only one in town that speaks English.” We all smiled.

Apparently, she grew up there and moved to Seattle for a few years and learned English and went to school.  She missed home and came back to Ahe and was just recently married.

We chatted for a few minutes and she told us of the pearl farms and the local places to go.  We thanked her and moved on to go do some more exploring.

We walked across the bridge to the local solar farm.  Since there is an abundance of sun in the tropics, it seemed like the perfect solution.  There was a man out front and Melissa and I introduced ourselves.  He showed us around the small solar farm and also showed us the huge generator and battery bank.  Pretty cool.

We began to get hungry, so we went back into town and ended up at the same little snack shack that told us about Marita.  We ordered hamburgers, and they came on a long baguette filled with hamburger and French fries inside the sandwich.  It also came with some unusual sauce which we added “to be like the locals”.  It was actually pretty good and super filling.

We decided to go back to the boat and enjoy a sundowner as the sun was quickly approaching the waterline.

The next day we decided to go for an exploratory dinghy ride down by the pearl farms.  As we stayed close to shore, we cruised by some really nice waterfront homes.  One home in particular had a pier and these three dogs (one looked just like our pooch we had to foster to my mom) ran around barking on the pier.  They were so cute and we really missed our dog.  As they kept barking and wagging their tails, one of the dogs pushed the other dog off the pier and it swam over to a submerged reef and pulled itself up.  I could swear the dog was smiling.  It just wagged its tail and kept barking like nothing had happened.  It was adorable.

We continued on our way and eventually passed the pearl farm.  Not much to see as no one was working and it just looked like an old building on the water.  We eventually made it back to our boat and made our plans to leave the next morning and sail to Rangiroa.

Rangiroa Atoll

It took about 22 hours to make it to Rangiroa and here we really had to time the tides right.  The lagoon on the inside of Rangiroa atoll is vast and with all the water ebbing and flowing with the tide, the pass can be very treacherous.  On our iNavX chart, we could see a large vessel making way into the Passe de Tiputa, so we decided to follow it in.  The vessel we saw heading in was the SSV Robert C Seamans, and she is a large 134-foot steel sailing brigantine vessel and is a study abroad ship.  She timed the tides perfectly and we were right behind her.

We scouted around for a nice anchorage and found one with a sandy bottom just outside of Hotel Kia Ora.  As usual, after an hour long anchor watch, we launched our dingy and went into town to check out the very small village.  The clarity of the water was magnificent.  Pulling up to the municipal pier, we could see giant green moray eels, black tip reef sharks, numerous sting rays, and fish of all shapes and sizes.  This was pretty cool, since we were only at the pier!

We tied off our dingy and went for a nice little walk.  Several other cruisers that we knew were there, so we asked them for some “local” knowledge.  They mentioned that we should have a drink at the cute little hotel right off the pass called, Les relais de Josephine and enjoy the view of the pass.  That sounded good to us, so we walked about 5 minutes down the road and hung a right at the sign.  A few minutes later, we were on a beautiful porch, overlooking the pass.  It was absolutely breathtaking.

We sat there for a few minutes just taking it all in.  Blues of every shade, purples, pinks and so many other tropical colors filled our eyes.  The most alluring thing was that the timid waters of the pass that we just sailed through, was now filled with turbulent standing waves about three feet high.  This was really scary since I knew that the pass was somewhat deep.  We just looked on in awe, transfixed on everything.

Eventually, the owner came out and said that they were only serving dinner that day and their reservations were full until a few days later.  We decided to make reservations for the next available opening.  We left by way of the very small entry onto the shell covered beach.  We meandered all over the beach and eventually made our way up to the road and walked a little further.  It was getting really hot and sunny, so we decided to head back to the dinghy, so we could go get our snorkeling gear and cool down some.

Well, as things happen when you’re a cruiser, we decided to do chores rather than play.  When we got back to the boat, I still wanted to get wet, so I dove over the side in my snorkeling gear to clean the bottom of the boat.  This is not a glamourous job and is actually very labor intensive if you don’t have scuba or a hookah setup.  I really didn’t mind though, because I was cleaning the bottom of our yacht in freakin’ Rangiroa and we sailed here by ourselves.

After our chores, the time just kind of flew by and we were once again having drinks at sundown.  Being the adventurous souls we are, we decided that night that we would leave the next morning and sail inside the vast lagoon to another spot called Lagon Bleu or as we would call it, The Blue Lagoon.  This lagoon is actually a lagoon, within the lagoon.

We raised our anchor early the next morning and headed off for another bit of paradise.  This is not a trip sailors take lightly.  There are a lot of hidden coral heads and if your charts aren’t good, you could run aground very easily.  We kept our eyes open and watched for changing colors of water and kept a fair distance anytime the chart said there was a chance of a coral head.

We passed by a small uninhabited island and saw that it looked pristine.  We would have to check it out on our way back.  After a four-hour sail we were at the anchorage spot for our destination.  There were a couple of problems.  The first problem was, it was a pretty deep anchorage at around 65 feet deep and the second issue was, the Blue Lagoon was about 2 miles away, which is a long dinghy ride.

Well, we were not perturbed.  We set an anchor watch while we got our day bags ready to go explore.  We felt confident once again that our anchor set well and we loaded up the dinghy with extra fuel, our handheld marine radio, emergency water, etc. and we were off.

The dinghy ride over was slightly bumpy as a squall came overhead about 10 minutes in.  One minute we could see our boat and the next it was swallowed by a darkening sheet of rain.  The good news was, we could still see our destination.

As we got closer to the lagoon within the lagoon, we could really see where local knowledge pays off.  We were on the outside of a maze of coral heads and slowly needled our way through.  At one point, we just couldn’t get any further, so I jumped out and pulled the dinghy over the last little bit of coral and sand.  We pulled the dink up on a sandy bank and walked through the trees.  Beauty at that moment, surpassed anything I knew of beauty.  We hiked around a bit, walking through saltwater rivers (scaring a large lemon shark), played in the water and lounged by trees, ensuring no coconuts fell on our heads.

Since this was just a reconnaissance trip, we decided to come back early the next day and make a full day out of it.

The next day, we spent the entire day at The Blue Lagoon.  We snorkeled with black tip reef sharks, went bushwhacking in the jungles, walked out to the South Pacific Ocean and looked for flotsam and jetsam that washed up on the beach.  The water was so clear that you didn’t even have to snorkel if you didn’t want to.  You could see the bottom perfectly clear when we were cruising around in our dinghy.

After a full day of playing in the water and sun, we finally decided we should be heading back.  When we were taking the dinghy back over the reef, there were dozens of black tip reef sharks swimming around our feet.  It was really cool.  I love seeing nature in its rawest form like this.  So awesome.

That night the waves inside the lagoon were knocking our boat around something good.  The wind kicked up to about 25 knots and the waves were about three feet.  Everything was fine, but it was a bumpy night.

We had a relaxing breakfast and then headed out for the island we saw on the way in.  We pulled up to it about two hours later.  We had just towed our dinghy, so we didn’t have to raise and lower it on the davits, which made it much faster to get in and go explore once again.

The little island is called Paio and it is really small, but uninhabited which made it that much more fun.  We explored for about an hour and I decided I wanted to get some use of my DJI Phantom drone, so I went back and got it while Melissa hung out on the small beach.

As you can see from the photos, it was surrounded by coral heads, so after I shot some video, we went snorkeling again.

As I write this, I can vividly remember the thoughts in my head this day and many others.  “Wow, I can’t believe we are here.”  We had met so many others in San Diego and in Mexico that never pulled the trigger and finished what they started.  I implore you, if you can dream it, you can do it!

We spent the night at anchor off the island of Paio and departed in the morning to go back to our original anchorage off of Hotel Kia Ora.

We heard of a great spot to go snorkeling that was within dinghy distance, so we loaded up the dink and headed over to The Aquarium.  It is so great to have your own mode of travel on the ocean.  We just motored up to a mooring buoy, tied off to it and jumped in the water.  We were immediately surrounded by thousands of fish that had been habituated to the: people = free meal mentality.

This reef was one of the better reefs that we had been to thus far.  The constant water coming in and out of the pass, kept this reef nutrient rich.  There were literally tons of fish everywhere.  We explored the underwater nirvana for over an hour and decided that since it was so close, we could come back anytime.

Hmm, what were we going to do next?  “Let’s rent bikes and see all the towns!”  Well, that’s exactly what we did.  We rented bikes at Rangiroa Diving Center.  We ensured we had lubed ourselves with a lot of sunscreen, brought our hats and lots of water and we were off.  Since everything is only 5 feet above sea level, the bikes only had one gear (beach cruisers).  We slowly made our way from village to village and eventually made it as far as we could ride on this one stretch of the atoll.  The clarity and colors of the Avatoru Pass (the only other pass) was strikingly beautiful.

We also found a church with a sculpture made out of shells that was really unusual and pretty at the same time.

As we headed back, we decided to stop at the bank and airport, since they are right off the road.
We got some additional cash at the ATM and went over to the airport to have lunch.  I had a nice $9 hamburger and fries (which is cheap for French Polynesia) and Melissa had a slice of chocolate cake.  If you saw the cake, you’d understand.

As we were eating, a British gentleman introduced himself and told us that he was going to play his Ukulele with the locals when the plane came in.  He said, there aren’t many people to jam with on the atoll and he took what he could get, so he could play music with others.  We thought that was pretty cool.

Of course, since the atoll is so small, we ran into him the next day at Les relais de Josephine, where there is somewhat reliable internet.  Our new friend Matthew offered his services to help us get a good deal on some black pearls, if we wanted.  Since Melissa is a jewelry designer, we jumped at the chance.

Within a few minutes, we were off in a local taxi and ten minutes later, we were looking at pearls.  Matthew knew the owner pretty well and had done some work for him and he haggled for over a half an hour and ended up getting us a great deal on some really nice Rangiroa black pearls.

Over the next few days, we saw Matthew everywhere and Melissa thought it would be a great idea if she made his niece (on the atoll) a nice pair of earrings as a thank you to Matthew for helping us. When we eventually gave him the gift, he was super appreciative and for the first time, he didn’t know what to say.

One night we were invited to have sundowner drinks on the S/V Freewheel, which is a Tayana 55.  The owner couple Magnus & Annelie were really nice.  Their friend Mike (and his wife) sailed all the way from Turkey to Rangiroa aboard their boat and they only had to pay for their own food, etc.  Pretty good gig.  Their boat was laid out great and we actually got to sit up front with eight people on the foredeck.

We also booked a free pearl farm tour at Gauguin’s Pearl with a group of other tourists and learned how the whole process of pearl farming worked.  It was pretty interesting, however since it is a free tour, they want you to spend quite a bit of time at the store before the bus takes you back.  Oh well, we were on island time and really didn’t mind.

The last thing we did before we decided to depart was to visit the other village of Tiputa on the other side of the pass, to see what it looked like.  We took our dinghy across the pass (really high up in the lagoon, so we weren’t swept out to sea) and tied up at the local dock.  This village was definitely a local’s only village and not many, if at all any, tourists in this village.  We only walked around for about a half an hour and decided we’d seen everything we wanted to see.  We headed back early and began to get our boat ready for the next big trip.

As I mentioned before, the timing of the tides is crucial to ensure you make the pass at slack tide.

We said our goodbyes and we were ready to depart to time it perfectly.

As we approached the pass, I could see on our AIS that the cruise ship Paul Gauguin was making their way to the entrance (coming in from the South Pacific).  I hailed them on the VHF radio and told them that we were standing by at the lagoon and we would be on their port side as they approached.  They were really nice and acknowledged our information.

Melissa says to me, “Are those waves breaking in the pass?”  I knew the time was just about right for slack tide, but I looked anyways and I answered, “Yes, those look big too, but they should be gone by the time we begin to depart.”

Melissa was skeptical.  It really didn’t help matters, when the Paul Guiguin (a 504’ ship) started listing heavily as it went through the pass.  Melissa took a video and we couldn’t believe how far she swung and listed.

As the giant ship passed us, I said, “We should start to depart now to make the slack tide.”  Melissa looked at me and said, “Those waves are still breaking.  That doesn’t look safe to me.”

Looking at the waves and knowing what “should” have been, caused me concern but I trusted the information I read, rather than using my common sense and delaying our departure.  We motored up and began our departure, thinking the waves would be gone in seconds.

Wrong decision.

As we exited and passed Les relais de Josephine on our port side, we saw the waves were still cresting and about six feet high.  We were committed now and couldn’t turn back.

As the first wave broke over the bow, the green water flew over the deck and immersed us both.  We both had our life jackets on and we were starting to realize that this was a bad error on my part.  We were moving around 6 knots and the second wave smashed into the boat.  Melissa ducked down by the closed companionway and rode it out from there.  I was hyper-focused on keeping the boat straight into the waves and ensuring our safety.  It was about 15 minutes of hell smashing into these large waves and maintaining the correct steerageway.  About 2 miles out at sea, the outgoing tide was still pushing our boat around but at least we could turn to port and make our way towards Tahiti.

A half hour later, we heard a boat that was heading in say, “That was the calmest entry into a pass I ever had.”

It was completely my fault.  What happened was, I forgot to change the clocks from The Marquesas (UTC-09:30) time zone to the Rangiroa (UTC-10:00) time zone, so I was ½ hour off!  I never thought that being on time (in the right time) could have killed us.

This was just the beginning of a real shitty passage.  For the next two days underway, we were slapped around by crossed up waves, our autopilot went out (due to weather helm) and we had to run away from a huge lightning storm.  Eventually we saw Tahiti early in the morning of our second day and we were elated.  Little did we know, our issues were just starting…