Entering the Tuamotus

May 31, 2004, 2:30 a.m.

Entering the Tuamotu atoll group

LATITUDE: 16-14.30S

LONGITUDE: 144-34.88W


Approaching Tahanea atoll

Greetings to our friends and family: 

We are entering the "dangerous archipelago" -- so termed because the maximum height of the atolls is just a few feet -- invisible even on radar, until you are quite close.  Furthermore, these atolls are the worn-off tips of precipitous sea mounts, so the depth of the water does not change until you are almost on the reef.  So you can't tell where you are from the radar, and you can't tell where you are from your depth sounder.  Until the wide availability of the GPS (global positioning system), most cruisers avoided these islands.  So here we are, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a small rain squall which seems determined not to leave us, and the GPS shows that we are 11 miles from Katiu, to port, and 11 miles from Raraka, to starboard, and the current depth is 4700 feet.  For each of these atolls, the chart carries the notation, "inadequately surveyed."  That may mean that the most recent survey information came from Captain Cook in 1779, and HE certainly didn't have a GPS!  

Needless to say, we are proceeding cautiously, watching radar, watching the chart, watching the GPS (with considerable skepticism) and watching the horizon.  In the middle of the night, in a rainstorm, of course, watching the horizon doesn't do a whole lot of good, particularly since most of these atolls are uninhabited, and therefore unlighted. 

Of course, "uninhabited" is part of the attraction -- coconut palms, blue lagoon, and the place to ourselves.  Or there may be other boats there.  We are heading for Tahanea, which according to Francois (a French cruiser we met in Anaho Bay, Nuku Hiva) is one of the most beautiful and remote atolls.  We know from listening to the radio net that at least one other boat is headed there, so we probably won't have total isolation.  But the atoll is 20 miles across, so there should be room for all in the lagoon.


Leaving Tahiohae in the Marquesas was not quite as painless as we had hoped.  Because there were so many boats in the harbor, we were having a hard time connecting with email, which included weather files we had requested.  Someone (usually me) would have to stay up into the middle of the night, and try for about an hour, to finally get the files downloaded.  Then in the early morning on the day of our departure, a "Windstar" cruise ship came into the bay and anchored near the fuel dock.  Fortunately we had moved to the other side of the bay, so we didn't have too direct a view of the monstrous ship.  But with all of their electronics gear (including, we speculate, high speed internet connections, satellite phones, in addition to all the ship's navigation equipment), radio transmissions for the ordinary boater became problematic, if not impossible.  We tried to listen to the "Coconut Milk Run" radio net, to get the latest weather, and reports from boats already on passage.  But the interference from the Windstar meant that we missed a lot of what was being said.

The Windstar in Taiohae Bay  

Then, in the course of stowing our stern anchor, we discovered several inches of motor oil in the bilge.  It turned out that one of the gallon bottles of oil (in storage for future oil changes) had sprung a leak.  You can't just pump that sort of thing overboard, you have to pump it into a container, and take it ashore for disposal.  But, of course, we had already deflated and stowed the dinghy.  So we called on our new friends, Frank and Marilyn on Elaine Marie out of Edinburgh Scotland, and they agreed to ferry our containers ashore for us.  We're hoping we run into them again in another anchorage later this season, because we really enjoyed talking with them. 

We decided to set out that afternoon, notwithstanding the fact that there was a forecast for virtually no wind.  We had managed to get our diesel tanks full, four jerry cans at a time, so we actually had enough fuel to get to Papeete (the capital of Tahiti, home of actual fuel docks that you can tie up to, and not worry about hoses bursting).

The first several days of the passage were indeed motoring days.  The ocean was calm, and at night the stars were brilliant, with lots of phosphoresnce in the water.  The phosphorescent jellyfish (at least that's what we assume they were) were the most spectacular.  As each passed out from under the stern of the boat, it looked like an underwater depth charge exploding, and then visible for several hundred feet behind.  A couple of days ago the wind showed up, and we had idyllic sailing conditions.  The water looked like Puget Sound on a spring day, not the middle of the ocean.  With virtually no swells, we flew along. 


Mark at the helm, working on his tan

Craig, relaxing in pleasant weather

Conditions were perfect for teaching Mark the preliminaries of sail handling.  More recently the wind has dropped, but we have still been sailing at a pretty good clip.  In fact, we've had a hard time slowing down enough to time our arrival at Tahanea with the tides.  Today, in 10 knots of wind we were sailing with two reefs in the main and just a scrap of the genny, and still making 4-5 knots.  (For you non-sailors, that's very fast for those conditions).  Now the wind has died, and we are slowly motoring between these unseen bits of tropical paradise.  At least that's what we're hoping for. 

Well, that's probably enough for 3:30 a.m.  My watch will end shortly, and I can go back to bed!  More later! 

Craig & Barbara Johnston

Back to the previous report     On to the next report