09-30-2018 Fakarava, Tuamotu Islands, French Polynesia

We are currently anchored in a picture-postcard-perfect location at the southern edge of Fakarava, an atoll in the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia. The breezes are very light right now, and when we got up in the morning there wasn’t a ripple on the surface. It almost gave us vertigo, since it seemed the boat was floating in air! We could see our anchor chain lying on the bottom in 30 feet of crystal clear water; it meandered in a lazy circle and the anchor lay almost exactly underneath the boat. There are almost always a few black-tip reef sharks, 4-6 feet long, within sight of the boat; we haven’t decided whether they’re curious or have reason to expect that our presence will provide or attract food. We haven’t seen them eat anything yet, just swim around slowly and gracefully with their powerful tails. We also see quite a few mid-sized reef fish that come up to the boat from time to time, especially when we dump kitchen scraps. It was fun to watch them go after a few st rands of leftover spaghetti yesterday afternoon! This is definitely one of the places that we will remember for the rest of our lives!
We sat on the deck last night, watching as the sun set. There were relatively few clouds in the sky, and the colors of the sky were clear and luminous. The previous evening’s show had some clouds near the horizon, and the sunset made a show of copper foil. The sunsets are fairly short here, and night settles in quickly. We are just past the full moon, so the moon is rising just an hour or two after the sun disappears. We get a short period of dark sky before the moon comes out to once again show us the fish and sharks circling around underneath us. The white sand nearly glows, and the coral heads (also called bommies) show up as dark presences against the sand. Last night we also saw a display of bioluminescence, perhaps plankton, perhaps small fish? There would be a sparkle here and another over there, kinda like a fountain of glitter.
As with all atolls, Fakarava is a ring of coral (this one rather rectangular in shape!) surrounding a large lagoon. Most of the ring extends above the surface, forming a series of islands which are called motus. There are gaps in the ring, though, passes through which the water flows in and out with the tides. Fakarava has two passes that are wide and deep enough for boats to pass through, one in the north and one in the south. There is a single long motu – about 40 miles long – along the northern and eastern edges, and a number of other motus sketch out the other sides; there are also a bunch of tiny ones dotting the interior. Most of the interior is quite deep and pocked with coral heads; only a small portion has been sounded and charted, but the coral heads are quite visible in good sunlight, so careful navigation is possible throughout.
We arrived in Fakarava about three weeks ago, after a fairly uneventful 5-day passage from Nuku Hiva. We arrived at the atoll about an hour before sunrise, but waited outside the pass to the lagoon for the tide to turn. This was our first crossing of a pass into an atoll’s lagoon, and we were a little nervous. 🙂 Timing is the art to entering an atoll. If you come in at the wrong time, the conditions in the pass might include breaking waves, current flowing against you, eddies and other turbulence. Predicting the optimal time is still an art, but it’s getting easier as more information is compiled. Even getting a reliable tide table for this area is a challenge! We used a tool developed by another cruiser a few years ago that they call the Guesstimator. It’s a spreadsheet where you enter a number of data points, including which atoll you want to enter on which date, and information about recent weather conditions. Strong winds creating higher waves can actually push water ov er the enclosing coral ring, filling the “bathtub” more quickly than normal, and creating stronger – and earlier – outgoing currents than usual. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect, so we chose an atoll with an “easy” pass entrance, and timed our arrival for a high slack tide during daylight hours. Our preparedness paid off, and our entrance was indeed a non-event. This will give us more confidence when we visit other atolls with less straightforward passes.
We first went to the town of Rotoava, in the northeast corner of the atoll, because we had a friend that we hoped to meet there. We had met Julie a month ago in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, but she headed for Tahiti shortly afterwards. In Tahiti, she ended up getting on a boat which came to Fakarava – the cruising community is smaller than one might expect! She showed us around the town, where to find groceries and internet access – what more does one need? We found a beautiful little reef marked with a navigation beacon quite near our boat, and enjoyed snorkeling there several times. We took a (very short) hike to the other side of the motu, facing the ocean, which was a very cool sight! There is a coral shelf, perhaps 300 feet wide, which is full of tidepools; the waves are crashing on the outer edge but the inner edge is glassy like an infinity pool. We did a little beach combing there, but it’s not a prolific ecosystem, probably because the conditions are too harsh to support much life. We spent a couple of days with Julie and her new boyfriend Sandy, but unfortunately she did not have a long-stay visa and her standard 3-month visa ran out less than a week after our arrival. She hopped on a plane and headed back to the States; while we hope to see her again, for today, we have another goodbye.
Although Fakarava is the second largest atoll in the Tuamotu chain, its main town of Rotoava is actually very small. We found three restaurants and three grocery stores, a couple of dive shops and pearl shops, and a governmental building including a post office, but no bars or other stores, as far as we could tell. There’s a supply ship which comes in once a week. Shortly afterwards (but not just beforehand!) the grocery stores have fresh produce. Occasionally another ship comes through, carrying heavier cargo. We saw one come in with a pickup truck on top; it also had a few cisterns, a couple of forklifts, some pallets of cement blocks, more pallets of large propane bottles, and lots of cargo unidentifiable from a distance. 🙂 This ship was in port for less than two hours. Gives weight to the phrase “when your ship comes in”!
Before we left Taiohae, we waited a few extra days for the ship to come in that was carrying some new sails for us. The Aranui is an interesting ship, half cruise boat, half cargo ship. They have a two-week circuit, leaving from Tahiti and visiting most of the Marquesas Islands and a couple of the Tuamotus. They take a couple hundred passengers, and when they are in town there is a lot of activity. The passengers walk the streets in clusters, take minivan bus tours of the islands, shop in the artisan markets, etc. The ship brings fresh produce to the markets of the towns they visit, and other items as well. The day the Aranui arrived, we went down to a parking lot behind the wharf, where a full-size container had been off-loaded. It was packed to the hilt with packages of all shapes and sizes. Some of them were manufacturer packaging, and we could see someone was getting a new stove or a mattress. Two or three employees were standing in the container, calling out the names of the recipients for each package in turn. The whole process was surprisingly informal and a bit chaotic. We showed our copy of the order form, but did not need to sign for the packages.
We were surprised at how small our two packages were, but when we got them back to the boat we were impressed at the packaging. Each sail was packed in a vacuum-packed bag, inside of a standard sail bag, inside of an extremely sturdy bag made from some kind of space-age material that will probably never break down. We’re keeping all of them for other uses around the boat, kind of a bonus gift that came along with our purchase! We immediately removed our old, worn-out, and frequently patched sails, and installed the new ones. How exciting! Another surprise came when we went to put the sail covers on – the covers were made to fit the old sails to a T, but the new sails are still stiff and don’t collapse down as compactly. The covers wouldn’t reach all the way around, for more than 50% of the length of the sails! We are going to wait a few months to allow the sailcloth to “relax” a bit, before modifying the sail covers to fit the new sails better. In the meantime we have added s ome straps to hold the covers on as best possible, to minimize the unnecessary solar exposure.
We visited a couple of spots further south along the main motu of Fakarava. One was completely free of human development, and one was inhabited by a delightful young family with half a dozen mooring balls for cruising boats, three rental cabins, and an amazing internet connection to keep all their guests happy. 🙂 We were impressed with the night sky, how even a town as small as Rotoava can create light pollution that interferes with a clear view of the stars.
When we first arrived in the southern end of the atoll, we followed some directions published in 2016 by cruisers who had found a nice anchorage near the pass. It was a little challenging to get to, but we had the place to ourselves. It was gorgeous, with beautiful turquoise water above white sand and bommies of coral of many different shapes and colors. There was a string of small motus, studded with palm trees, and with channels between them. We dinghied our first day over to the main pass, to take some measurements of the depth and investigate whether it would be reasonable for us to leave through this pass, or more prudent to return to the north pass when we wanted to move on. (We think this one is doable, although it will be more challenging than our easy entrance in the north.) We also went snorkeling, as the tide turned slack just after a period of outgoing current. We donned our gear and jumped into the water holding a long line attached to the dinghy, to pull it alon g behind. Much of the pass is quite deep in the center and we couldn’t really see the bottom all that well, so we hung a bit to the sides. The coral was spectacular, and there were many types of fish (including file fish, whose skinny white lines against a dark black surface remind Kathy of white pearls with an evening gown, and napoleanfish, which are the largest wrasses you’ve ever seen). We saw schools of grouper and snapper, and a number of reef sharks (although not as many as we had expected from some breathless reports we had read previously 🙂 ). We’ll probably come back another time with diving gear, because it was so pretty and we’d like the opportunity to go a little deeper. The second day we were in this place, we took a little dinghy ride to one of the nearby motus and walked around on the shore, again visiting the outside shelf and seeing the ocean waves crashing ashore. We saw lots and lots of small sea cucumbers in the shallow channel between this motu and its neighbor, perhaps because the water is warmer there. We startled several birds as we crossed nearby, and they flew to the next motu down, calling “toodle-loo” all the way. They had long curved beaks, and we thought they looked like sandpipers. We’ve heard of an endangered sandpiper species at a nearby atoll, and we wondered if these were members of that group. The third day we were loading the dinghy to go for a snorkel, when a covered skiff, perhaps a wildlife tour boat, pulled up to us and the captain started talking animatedly. We had a difficult time understanding his to-us complicated and rapid speech, but got the gist that we were anchored in an off-limits area and we would need to move to a different anchorage area on the other side of the pass. Disappointing, because one of the advantages of this site is that there is less coral to snag our anchor chain on. We immediately pulled our anchor up and relocated, though.
In our new location the next day, we found the weather conditions were so calm and glassy that we decided to do a maintenance project on our anchor system. Our chain is about 5 years old, and beginning to show a little bit of wear, so we wanted to switch it end-for-end. We thought the project would only take a couple of hours, including dropping a secondary anchor during the work and making new marks to indicate how much chain is out for when we’re deploying it. As often turns out to be the case, the small project turned out to be a good bit larger. An intermittent problem that we’ve encountered a few times before reared its head and became a very important, immediate addition to our project. The problem presents itself as the windlass running amok, not stopping when one removes pressure from the foot pedal. The first time this happened, the anchor was coming up and the windlass wouldn’t allow us to stop when it got to the top. This broke a brass “key” that is intended to pro tect the motor from breaking a shaft if it was working against a load that was just too heavy. We spent an entire day disassembling the windlass enough to replace that key to get it all working again. Now we had time to run inside and throw a switch which disconnects the power to the windlass before any damage was done. Dan quickly figured out that the problem was being caused by the foot pedal itself, because the protective rubber sheath had worn through and the inner works were exposed to the elements. Fortunately we had a spare switch in our stores, although of a different design. It took a few hours to construct a new bracket and mounting plate for the new switch, but we are very pleased at the idea that the “ghost in the machine” of our windlass will no longer be haunting us!
And on that note of accomplishment, I am going to wrap up this posting. Besides, it’s time for tonight’s sunset, and it’s shaping up to be a beauty!

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