Tuamotus – Tahanea and Fakarava

We were four days sailing the 500 miles from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus. The wind was very light the first two days — a little frustrating, but it made for wonderful night watches with spectacular stars (no moon) and nothing needing to be tended to. Just sit and enjoy the peace and solitude and quiet and slow movement, and maybe doze off now and then. The third night brought squalls. At 4am I was up — it was impossible to sleep in my forward berth. I helped Tim put a reef in the mainsail. Believe it or not, this was the first time we reefed since leaving Key West! After several squalls went through, we had good wind the rest of the way.

We made for the Tahanea atoll, because it is uninhabited and we thought that would be cool. There was one house/hut visible as we sailed along the shore, but no sign of anyone there. We were “early” at the pass — the current still ebbing fast. Navigating in the Tuamotus is largely about timing the entrance/exit through a pass to the lagoon inside the coral reef fringe. Most atolls have one or two passes. Many square miles of tidewater flow in/out of the passes, so the currents can be extremely strong, and when they oppose the wind it can make for steep breaking waves. But it was no problem motoring in. The pass was wide, so we could stay out of the maximum current and waves. We still had about 3 knots against us.

I never fully comprehended what these atolls would be like. You get through the pass, and then…you’re “inside.” But you can barely see the bits of land/palms marking the far side. The lagoon is huge. To get good protection from waves, we would have to motor five miles to windward and anchor just behind the windward portion of the reef. We decided instead to check out a little protected area at the side next to the pass. In retrospect that area probably would have been ideal. But we were surprised by the coral heads EVERYWHERE. There was no possibility of anchoring in a clear patch of sand, where the chain wouldn’t swing against a coral head.

We decided to check a little further along the rim. But it is all similar. Sandy bottom, with coral heads scattered wherever you look. We anchored in a nice place, among the heads, with a little less protection than where we first looked. The heads do not rise up high enough to threaten the boat. The concern is that the anchor chain could wrap around a head, potentially eliminating the “elasticity” of the catenary of hanging chain, and damaging the chain or cleat or other gear (as well as the coral).

The place is beautiful. The place is profoundly remote. The water is clear, the coral is varied colors, including an occasional striking purple, in delicate shapes. The sky and lagoon and palm and beach colors are vibrant and classic — looks a little like an ad photo that’s been enhanced to be “more than real.”

But it’s hard to relax here. It’s not a well protected anchorage. The lagoon is too big. If the wind shifts and blows hard, we will be in an untenable place, on a lee shore, with the prospect of moving miles in the dark among the coral to get to the sheltered side!

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We stayed two nights in Tahanea, with just a little swimming and a beachcombing excursion in between. This morning the wind was howling, but we decided to go ahead with our plan to leave at high water, early in the morning, and head for Fakarava, another atoll about 50 miles away. We had a challenge getting the anchor up, as it was fouled on a coral head, but a chunk of coral broke off and freed us. (We don’t want to be damaging coral, but where there are zillions of coral heads everywhere, breaking off a piece of one doesn’t seem like it matters.) As we motored toward the pass, we had gusts over 30 knots. And in the pass, the current was already flowing out hard, creating some crazy waves with the opposing wind. It got the morning adrenaline going, but we got out with no problem.

We flew our small spinnaker, which was just about ideal as the wind settled, relatively speaking, at 20 knots. Turned out to be a beautiful day. About 3pm we approached the pass at the south end of Fakarava. The tide would be in full flood, we knew, but it would be with the wind, and carrying us in. It’s a little scary to be swept fast by the current into an unfamiliar channel with coral reefs on each side, but in fact the passage was easy. And the sun was out and still high enough to light up the underwater coral reefs we needed to avoid. We chose a place to anchor that looked idyllic, with three other boats at anchor nearby.

The spot has lived up to expectations. We anchored in 12 feet of water, in a patch of sand (with coral heads all around, naturally). It is well protected so long as the usual trade winds blow. The water is clear and slightly cool — wonderful to swim in. The surrounding reef and palms are beautiful. The wind is keeping us comfortable and helping charge our batteries (so I can send these updates via our SSB radio). There is a tiny village nearby that we anticipate exploring tomorrow. I’m starting to enjoy the Tuamotus!

3 thoughts on “Tuamotus – Tahanea and Fakarava”

  1. Loving all your detailed and technical descriptors of the places you reach. I can pretty easily imagine the gorgeousness of an atoll, but learning the realities of navigating these dangerously beautiful places makes it real! What I really enjoy are your comments on the periods of pure sailing. The stars all night with no moon . . .

    I have a couple of questions:
    First, being so close to the equator, do you notice anything remarkable about living with the sun directly overhead all the time?

    Second, are the tides different there than they are at 45 degrees? I always sort of imagined there wasn’t a lot of tidal influence at 0 degrees.

    Lovin’ this! Thanks so much, Zeke!

    Kit

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  2. I never really got what an atoll was until you described it and I went to Google to see it. That rim of land, completely (almost) enclosing a tidal lagoon as it does, is quite remarkable. Not to mention being about as endangered as a place can get when big waves come or the seas all rise!

    Like

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