Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Landfall in Tahiti

Nick woke me at 1am for my watch and as the night wore on the glow of civilisation ahead became stronger and stronger. Not since Martinique had our landfall suggested such a concentration of civilisation, and it was a welcome sight. Surely here we could get some fresh fruit and veg, visit a net cafe and perhaps find a launderette. After sunrise, Tahiti looked very much like a Marquesan island - mountainous, and lush - but it's important to remember that it, like all the Society islands, is surrounded by a barrier reef. It's a 'melange' (my new french word) of the Marquesas and the Tuamotus. As we motored inside the reef, toward Papeete, we had to dodge fishing boats, water skiers, leisure boats and jet skis. This place is a major tourist spot and the quantity of yachts in the anchorage reflected this.
Return to civilisation
Return to civilisation

We spotted Zeferin and dropped anchor in a space behind her at about noon ship's time. We have heard and read much about Tahiti, particularly Papeete, being crowded and unfriendly but when we visited the town this afternoon, we liked what we saw and were pleasantly surprised by how helpful the locals were. It is extremely expensive however, and though there is internet access and a laundry, the cost makes us think twice about using the facilities. We have yet to see the fresh fruit and veg but we live in hope. It is Sunday after all.

The anchorage is within the reef and though it's busy, it is very comfortable. The water is amazingly clean. We are anchored in 15 metres and can see the bottom. We have spent some time this evening catching up with Zeferin and swapping coral stories. Joan and I also compared 'no-no' scars - it seems they found her as tasty as me!

Saturday, July 22, 2006


We're off to Tahiti to sample "big city" life and restock the stores. It's approximately 230 nautical miles from Fakarava to Papeete - the capital. We cleared the Fakarava lagoon pass at 11am (Friday), so we should be in Tahiti early Sunday morning.

We'd planned an earlier departure, slack water was at 9am, but we were foiled when only 10m of the 70m of chain we'd put out came up before the chain was taut vertical to the bottom. We'd decided to anchor in deeper water (17m), in the mistaken belief that there would be less coral growth at that depth. It seems that our chain has an affinity for coral and had once again tangled itself around some growth. We tried the brute force method with the engine which only resulted in dipping the bow and creating some alarming noises from the chain. Now the disadvantage of anchoring in deeper water became apparent as we pondered how to free ourselves. Our anchoring spot had visibility of around 6m, that meant diving 11m down just to see the chain. Four attempts later (with long recovery periods in-between) and I finally spied the chain wrapped around the only coral growth in-sight. Now we knew which way the chain was tangled it was relativity straightforward to motor round and disentangle ourselves.

As we hoped, the diving in Fakarava was spectacular. We dove just outside the pass with outstanding visibility. For one of the dives we descended to 30m, circling down quickly to avoid loosing each other in the swift flow through the pass. At the bottom we grabbed onto a rock to hold ourselves against the current, regrouped and stayed in position for 5 minutes watching the 40 or so circling sharks and all the time trying to relax so not to use all the air in the first few minutes. Then we were off, being swept along by the current through a coral landscape, populated by more sharks, tuna, barracuda, and a myriad of reef fish, before dipping down again into a canyon full of sheltering fish.

On the way back from the diving, someone spied a large fin, which our dive boat altered course towards. It turned out to be a 2m tiger shark devouring a dead cat. Our fish identification book's entry for tiger shark reads: "The most dangerous tropical shark, responsible for many fatalities", whereas the reef and black-tip sharks we'd been diving with are merely, "generally timid, but considered dangerous" & "potentially dangerous". I forgot to mention that Ellen was on shark lookout as I dived to free the anchor chain.

We're still canvassing opinion on what to do about the reef damage we suffered. The current consensus is that we might as well wait and take advantage of superior facilities in New Zealand. We remain very thankful for the thickness of Kika's hull - but we don't intend to test it again!

We've re-learnt some useful lessons from our brush with the reef in Raroia, such as being prepared to clear out of an anchorage as soon as the wind shifts and the anchorage becomes exposed - especially if there's a coral lee-shore, and thinking for ourselves and finding our own anchorages rather than relying so heavily on information in the pilot guides; there was much less coral in the second anchorage we found.

Fakarava was a good place to convalesce after the excitement of Raroia and we've made a full recovery, although close encounters with coral heads still loom large in my dreams.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sanctuary in Fakarava

As in Raroia, we reached Fakarava at exactly the right time - slack water - and we sailed through the pass into the enormous lagoon (30x50 miles). We were happy to see other masts in the anchorage and a good stretch of coral free water to drop anchor in. Then it was my turn to inspect the damage to Kika's hull - something I had been absolutely dreading. I was astonished to find only superficial, localised scratches rather like the scrapes you make accidentally when you're preparing the hull for anti-fouling and get a little too enthusiastic with the scraper (or am I the only person that does that?). I can't believe that after all the sickening scraping noises, and the violent series of impacts we suffered on the coral this is the result. I feel a bit of a fraud and can only assume that the coral came off much worse.

Kika is certainly living up to her reputation as a safe and robust vessel and we feel a little humbled by her integrity (not to mention a little grateful). So, things do look much better than we initially thought, but as we're amateurs at diagnosing hull problems we are going to have her hauled out as planned, get confirmation that the damage is only minimal and then put it right.

Meanwhile here in Fakarava we are enjoying the delights of a more sheltered and spacious anchorage and really using our experience to make better decisions when it comes to choosing where to drop the anchor.
We were both a little shell-shocked and exhausted during the passage here so we're having a bit of a lazy day, and then going scuba diving tomorrow.
Fakarava's reputation as a fantastic diving spot is legendary, so be prepared for some fishy tales in the next instalment.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Raroia: the best of times and the worst of times

We were really enjoying Raroia. There wasn't much ashore, a small village, population approx 80, but there was a lot of activity; fishing and pearl farming, spear throwing contests, volleyball, football and general hanging about especially around the ever active barbeques. Not to mention we were the only yacht in the atoll - which gave us a certain novelty value; we'd made an effort to visit one of the less frequented islands and escape briefly from the main yacht route from Marquesas to Tahiti. We'd met a few locals when they'd asked if we had any MP3 music they could copy onto their iPods. Ellen was a little envious as they had super-slim iPods unlike her earlier model. Amazingly they seemed to enjoy our music collection, although discerningly chose mainly from Ellen's library which I guess, won't come as a surprise to some of you.

Even though we were surrounded by fish, we were reluctant to try to catch any as we we'd heard ciguatera (fish poisoning) was prevalent in the lagoon. As we finished the last of our tuna, it was starting to looking as though we'd have to be creative with our surplus of onions, pasta and cans of tomatoes. Fortunately we were saved from the remains of our stores by the offer of an afternoon's spear fishing.
Five of us headed out in a fishing/speed boat initially in search of lobster. Much grovelling around in holes in the exposed coral later and we had two good sized lobsters in the boat. Then we moved to the pass for the spear fishing. It was a revelation; our hosts effortlessly descended, slowly took aim and without fail brought up their speared fish to the waiting boat. My efforts were sad in comparison; vigorous thrashing around as I dived down, by which time I'd expended too much energy, so I only had enough time for a hurried aim at the now rapidly disappearing fish, followed by a swift ascent and a good few minutes recovery. The result - I'm still looking forward to spearing my first fish, but at least I now know what I'm 'aiming' for.

We invited our new fishing friends back to Kika and good evening followed, despite conversation slowed by frequent recourse to the French dictionary.
However during the evening the wind changed direction to the east and increased, exposing the anchorage to the 6 mile fetch across the lagoon and meaning we were anchored just off a lee shore. Our fishermen friends assured us that the wind would soon drop, which initially proved true.
However by 10pm the wind returned strongly, but the anchor seemed to be holding so we turned-in for the night. Just before midnight, after failing to sleep as we listened to the sound of the chain grating on the bottom, we heard a new noise, not coming from the anchor chain but from Kika. The anchor had dragged and we were grating against a coral head. We quickly started the engine and tried to motor forward, but the anchor was wrapped around some coral and the chain was straining at right angles to the bow, preventing us from motoring clear. Our movement was restricted and wherever we shone the torch we could see coral. There appeared to be no way clear. As we pitched in the waves we could hear and feel the coral scraping the keel. We decided the only thing to do was to ditch the anchor, break free and try to get out into open water as best we could. Ellen helmed using the engine to try to keep her off the coral but it was impossible. I set about jettisoning the anchor and chain. It seemed to take forever but eventually we broke free and then tried to find a path through the coral heads with the torch. It was a nightmare - we'd dragged through the anchorage and into a maze of coral. The sound and feeling of her hitting the coral, the screaming of the engine, the howling of the wind, and the beeping of the depth gauge telling us we had no depth, were sickening. At one point, Kika was leaning over with her port side on the coral and we were completely grounded, but eventually we worked our way clear. I checked we weren't taking on water - thankfully the bilge was as dry as normal, although I gave myself a fright when I saw what I took to be oily bilge water on the cabin sole and suspected the worse; thankfully it turned out to be a peach cordial bottle rolling around and leaking its contents. Then we settled down to a night of motoring slowly between two lit navigation marks which we knew where in safe water. Our two spare anchors were on standby in-case the engine faltered but in the event our trusty diesel clearly recognised the severity of the situation and behaved faultlessly.
With the arrival of dawn our priorities were to inspect the hull and retrieve the abandoned anchor. We waited for a let-up in the weather, but with no let-up and no alternative sheltered anchorage we felt we had little option other than to continue motoring back and forth between the two marks hoping for a clear break. Our spare main anchor comprises of 20m of chain and 40m of nylon rode. We were concerned that if we re-anchored in our former spot the coral would make short work of the nylon and we'd be fighting to save Kika again. Fortunately the clouds briefly lifted and enabled us to con for alternative anchorages. We spotted one in the lee of a large patch of coral, which appeared to have a sandy bottom and was further off-shore, giving us longer should the nylon rode chafe through.
Finally, after 12 hours of motoring back and forth, we re-anchored, holding our breadths until the anchor had clearly taken. We still didn't feel terribly secure; we were pitching and jerking horribly on the anchor line in the nasty short chop created by the 20-30 knot winds. Then the moment I hadn't been looking forward to - diving in to inspect the hull. There are plenty scratches and a few gauges below the water-line, the rudder has a few scratches but there appeared to be no structural problems which would stop us leaving the atoll.
Then to recover the anchor. Ellen waited on Kika monitoring our spare anchor, ready to motor clear should it fail, while I headed off in the dinghy towards the buoy I'd attached to the end of the chain. It was hard work recovering the ground-tackle. The chain was wrapped in a figure of eight round a couple of coral heads fortunately and unfortunately shallow enough to easily dive and free. Eventually 75m of chain and our 45lb anchor were in the dinghy, which was now overloaded, making the return journey difficult as the surf threatened to overwhelm our normally dry inflatable. By the time I'd made it back to Kika, the dinghy was worryingly awash, but it was starting to look like the worst was over.
At 4pm we cleared the churning water of the lagoon pass, hoisted the sails and cut the engine - it was such a relief to be back in deep water, enjoying the wind, not dreading it.
We're off in search of a more sheltered anchorage, in another atoll - Fakarava, where we'll rest and plan our next moves. We'll almost certainly take advantage of the haul-out facilities in the Society Islands to restore Kika to her former self and we're both still trying to make sense of what's happened and what we could have done differently.

Final thought: the expression - "you're in deep water" - isn't normally a place you'd like to be; for us it's a joy.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Black Pearls, Grey Sharks

This landfall was a real challenge for us. With tide and light quality to consider, the window for entering is quite narrow. There is also the problem of low-lying land and submerged coral reef to add to the stress and strain of stopping here. Anyway, Nick timed last night's passage brilliantly and we arrived at Raroia at slack tide when the sun was rising. As it turned out the buoyage here is pretty good until you get to the actual anchorage where scattered coral patches make dropping your anchor a little nerve-wracking. After much deliberation we found our spot and were greeted/threatened by 5 small sharks swimming round the boat. Apparently there are many sharks in this lagoon but they're not interested in big game! Hmmm, not sure what I think about that yet. I may have a swim tomorrow, the water is certainly very inviting and of the clarity we haven't seen since the San Blas. At least I can see those man eaters coming!

We are the only boat in the anchorage which is a little surprising as we had had a tip off about the Kontiki Raft returning here for a festival on Bastille Day (tomorrow) and we expected a crowd. Alas the raft has been and gone and is now in Papeete probably with all the other cruisers.No matter, it is well sheltered here and the locals are friendly and interesting so we are quite happy. Black Pearl farming is the main industry and a boat full of young, handsome farmers came to introduce themselves this afternoon and tell us a little about the lagoon. There is ciguatera on the western reef which basically means any fish caught near it is inedible. Ciguatera is a toxin found in marine plant life which accumulates in the flesh of reef fish and their predators. Strangely, it is harmless to the fish, but can cause a severe reaction in humans. It cannot be smelt or seen in the flesh of the fish so it is best not to take a risk. The rule of thumb is to eat small, young, herbivorous fish or best of all, leave off the seafood until you get out in the ocean once again where the pelagic fish are ciguatera-free. Speaking of which, we caught a large tuna yesterday and have just enjoyed our 4th meal from it. We were both overjoyed at catching our protein fix.

Tomorrow for me is going to involve more sewing. The spray hood (which I repaired 4 days ago after someone leant very heavily on it!) suffered a bit of a blow-out during a particularly violent squall on our way here and needs urgent surgery. Nick is going to be helping the pearl farmers expand their music collections by copying our music library for them (after asking us where we came from, they wanted to know if we had an iPod and a computer and could they have some music?!). Nick is hoping that in return he may get a lesson in spear fishing from a professional, as so far his spear gun hasn't speared a sausage!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Towards the dangerous archipelago

The first couple of days out of Nuka Hiva we enjoyed some of the smoothest sailing we've had to date. So much so that we instigated a film night - with the laptop playing DVDs at the top of the companionway while we watched from the cockpit - the sea was calm enough to remove the worry of breaking waves or sudden rolls harming the computer. However by the second night we'd entered a area of squally, showery weather with Kika alternately over-pressed, or crashing around in the calm which followed the squall. It made for a hard, wet night of reefing, unreefing and hand-steering. One compensation is that there's a full moon at present, so at least we can see what we're doing.

After the squally night the weather moderated, with the squalls becoming less severe and the "calms" bringing sufficient wind to keep the sails full. Last night we were less concerned with the variable wind than with passing safely past the "Iles du Desappointment" - the Admiralty chart and electronic charts disagreed by 5nmiles so we picked the most pessimistic and added another 5nmiles. The wind had other ideas and we were kept busy tweaking the self-steering and sails so that by dawn we'd changed from sailing a fine reach through to a dead run to ensure we didn't make an early unexpected landfall.

We've been craving fresh-fish and clearly still haven't fully grasped all the skills required, as we'd been unsuccessful so far. This morning I set the line, more out of routine than expectation, but 30 minutes later the scream of the winch as the fish took the line, alerted us to our first bite of since we left the Marquesas. After some effort we landed a fat 75cm tuna and the fridge has once again something to do.

We hope to make landfall at first light. The pilot guide says, "these islands have with truth been called the low or dangerous archipelago. This derives from their low-lying character, only becoming visible from the deck of a yacht when as close as 8 miles". GPS has eased concern about fixing our position accurately, but many charts of this area were made before GPS so we still need to be vigilant. The other complication is that many of the passes are small, and have strong tidal flows through them; they act as a funnels, concentrating the flow of water into and out of the lagoon. High water is at 0715 local-time so we aim to enter a little before that, to catch the last of the flood. If we miss morning high-water, depending upon conditions we might have to wait outside until low-water - 1.30pm. It all makes for a slightly more challenging landfall...

Position at 1640 (GMT-9) S14deg 52.7' W142deg 01.6'

Monday, July 10, 2006

South to the Tuamotous

Time to move on again. We left Nuka Hiva yesterday morning for the Tuamotus. We're aiming for Raroia which is where Thor Heyerdahl's raft "Kon-Tiki" was stranded at the end of his voyage from Peru. We're hoping to arrive in time for Bastille day (14th July), which is the excuse for major festivities throughout French Polynesia.

We've had a slow, if relaxing start, with a gentle 10 knots of easterly wind and calm sea. If the wind shifts more to the SE, we might struggle to make Raroia, but there are plenty of other islands to choose from, the pilot guide says there are 78 atolls within the archipelago, stretched across a 1000 miles. Thankfully it isn't possible to visit them all; the French used some of the southerly atolls for their nuclear tests, and others are only navigable by shallow draft boats through small breaks in the reef. Still lots to look forward to, with clear water, fantastic diving, snorkeling and fishing opportunities.

Since the last update the roaches have vanished, we hope permanently, but suspect they will reappear once the eggs hatch.

We stayed a few extra days in Ua Pou as we'd learnt that the bamboo, palm-leafed and corrugated iron buildings taking shape around the waterfront would result in a festival area opening on 1st July. The fete opened with speeches in Marquasian and French. Embarrassingly my school French only allowed me to deduce the occasional word and the only real thing we learnt was the correct pronunciation of Ua Pou - "Wah Poe". Eventually the speeches gave way to food, booze and dancing, all of which we indulged in.

The following day we left for Nuka Hiva, taking our time to extricate ourselves from the breakwater - we hoped a friendly local would untie our shore lines, but with little Sunday morning activity we resorted to juggling, retrieving the anchor while swimming to the breakwater to free our lines, surprisingly the plan worked out and we set off for Nuka Hiva, expecting a pleasant day sail. Unfortunately a nasty cross swell and a couple of squalls meant the trip was more of an endurance test or perhaps our week in Ua Pou had softened us, whatever the reason we were glad when we made the shelter of hills surrounding the main town in Nuka Hiva - Taiohae Bay.

It was the biggest anchorage we'd visited in the Marquesas and it came as a shock to see so many boats, although great to catch up with friends, particularly Pepe and Bianca, on Argo. Our paths have been crossing since Venezuela and we'd last seen them in the Galapagos. Argo has no HF transmitter so we'd lost touch. They'd only just arrived in the Marquesas and were still relieved to be safely at anchor after suffering from a broken engine and shredded sails during the last part of their crossing.

We spent a couple of days in the main town becoming accustomed to roads that allow cars to make it out of second gear, scouring the local shops for vegetables (we found two cabbages and three carrots which between them cost an extortionate $10US) and enjoying the slightly more developed facilities - two restaurants and an internet cafe.

From the main town we headed three miles west to a secluded anchorage known as Daniel's bay, which surprisingly was completely deserted. The bay is named after the former inhabitant whose dwelling overlooks the anchorage. There's a sad story here; the American reality TV series "Survivor USA" based a series in the bay, and moved the elderly Daniel to new house in another bay. The island rumour was that he never recovered from the move and died the week before we arrived.
The bay would have made a perfect setting for a Ransome-esque story:

'"Hello" called out the explorers, trying to get a response from the deserted buildings. It was most eerie; clothes hanging on the line, a radio playing, but no-one around. "Perhaps he forgot to switch off his radio when he set off for work", said Susan sensibly, "Perhaps he's been kidnapped", said Roger, just then John called out, "native foot-prints on the beach, leading to a neat pile of bones". "Cannibals" cried Roger....'

The wild-life in Daniel's bay was spectacular with boobies startling us as they dived around the boat and a couple of impressive manta rays swimming in the bay and coming right up to Kika before diving under her.
We also caught sight of the massive eel which inhabits the pool under the local waterfall - he was impressive enough for us to skip the swim.

Unfortunately there was a downside to anchorage, in the form of no-nos which attacked us relentlessly. Ellen was particularly badly bitten, and currently requires twice daily applications of calamine lotion to ease the itching. Encouragingly other cruisers say the bites completely disappear after 4-5 days. We're on day 3 and looking forward to being itch free.

We headed back to the main anchorage to escape the no-nos. While Ellen settled down for a quiet night on the boat, nursing her bites, I headed off with other cruisers to the Saturday night entertainment - the Miss Nuka Hiva 2006 competition. Sadly my choice of Nika Hiva's finest only came 4th, although she took it well still smiling radiantly while supporting an elaborate head-dress of palm fronds.

On the technical/boat maintenance front we seem to be on-top of things. We've patched the spray hood which split when it took my weight as the boat lurched while I was securing the main. The rat-lines are slowly making their way up the shrouds, thanks to Will (from Ragtime), gifting me a serving mallet and teaching me how to use it.
I've also further diagnosed the engine problems we had on the last day of the crossing which I now think might be related to the engine stop cable intermittently sticking between closed and open and starving the engine of fuel. Long may it last....