June 2014 - Marquesas to Tahiti

1 June 2014   South East Anchorage, Kauehi, Tuamotus
It was another lovely morning with a nice 20 knot wind and fluffy white clouds against a blue sky.  Unfortunately, Glenys discovered Weevils in a packet of milk powder and had to clear out one of her cupboards inspecting everything for the pesky little devils.  Most of the open packets of powdered produce had to be tipped overboard and the cupboard cleaned with a wash of bleach.

More boats have been slowly arriving over the past few days and we now have quite a community of nine boats spread along the anchorage.  We arranged to have lunch ashore with “Nuwam” and “Vanupieds”, then Courage from “Lil Explorers” found out and it turned into a major event with all the boats attending.  In all there were probably 20 adults and a dozen kids, so it was good fun meeting new people.  In the afternoon I went over to “Nuwam” with my guitar and we had a bit of a music session.

2 June 2014   Kauehi to Rotoava, Fakarava, Tuamotus
We were up at the crack of dawn and motored to the pass, which was very calm, so I guess that I got the tides right.  There wasn't much wind and it was almost directly behind us, so we had a slow, rolly, 40 mile passage to Fakarava.  It took us six hours to get to the north pass, which is very wide and presented no problems.  Once inside the atoll, the wind was dead on the nose, so we motored all the way to the town of Rotoava.

There isn't a specific anchorage here; instead boats are spread out along the shore of the motu.  We tried a couple of places, but our anchor just dragged.  We eventually found a good spot in 11 metres of water opposite the church (at 16°03.74S 145°37.18W).  There are lots of coral heads in this area, but I managed to hit a sandy patch. 

Rotoava, Fakarava, Tuamotus

We've established a routine when we anchor amongst the coral heads.  I drop the anchor into the biggest sandy patch that we can find, with a small buoy attached to the anchor, so that we can see where it is.  I then let out our normal amount of chain (4-5 times the depth) and slowly reverse the boat to set the anchor.  Glenys then backs up hard on the anchor while I keep my foot on the chain to feel if it is dragging or caught on coral.

Once we’re happy that we’re dug in, I pull up the chain and clip two fenders to the chain at 40% and 70% of the length of chain, so with 50 metres out, we have fenders at 20 metres and 35 metres.  The fenders are there to suspend the chain above the sea bed and to stop the chain wrapping around coral heads. The size of the fenders depends on the depth of water - if it’s deep then a bigger fender is needed at the 40% position because the fender gets dragged down deeper and collapses with the water pressure.

With the anchor dug in and the fenders in position, I put on my mask and fins and dive down to check that all is well.  I first check that the anchor is dug into sand and adjust the length of the rope on the anchor buoy, so that it floats just above the anchor.  I then check that the chain is not wrapped around any coral heads.  Most of the time, the chain will have caught on something, so I physically lift the chain over the coral and position it so that it is straight. Lastly I check the fenders to make sure that they are lifting the chain above the coral heads - repositioning them if necessary.  

This is a lot of faffing about, but so far it had worked well and we haven’t had our chain seriously wrapped around any coral heads.  I check the anchor chain every day and reposition it if we've snagged on anything.  We don’t usually put a buoy on the anchor, but I find that it really helps here and gives a good indication if the anchor chain is snagged on a coral head.

3 June 2014   Rotoava, Fakarava, Tuamotus
As usual when we get to civilisation, the first thing we did was to go shopping for food and drinks. We weren't sure where to put our dinghy, but a local guy let us use his wooden dock, which is about 300 metres north of the church is on a small beach.  It appears that many of the beaches are private.

Harvesting Pearls, Fakarava

There are two small stores near the church, both of which had a reasonable selection of things.  They’re not very good for fresh vegetables, but have plenty of frozen meat, drinks and canned goods.   We stocked up with drinks - orange juice, coke, milk and I was pleased to see that they sold cases of beer in cans.

After lunch, we had a stroll around the village, which is spread out along the main road.  The church is pretty, being decorated with shells and wood carvings.  We stopped off at a couple of small shops selling Black Pearls and arranged to visit the Hinano Pearl Farm tomorrow.

When we got back to the dinghy, there was a large Nurse Shark hanging around the dock - it’s the first one that we've seen in the Pacific. 

4 June 2014   Rotoava, Fakarava, Tuamotus
We went to the Hinano Pearl farm, which was very interesting.  The Black Pearls of French Polynesia are world-renowned and the majority of the pearls come from the Tuamotus.  The old fashioned method of diving for pearls has been overtaken by pearl farming because of the depletion of natural stocks and the pearls produced by the farms are bigger, rounder and of higher quality.

The process of creating a cultured pearl is called a graft.  A small 6mm diameter ball made from shell (called a nucleus) is surgically placed into the gonad of a 2 year old young oyster.  At the same time, a small piece of Mantle tissue from another oyster is place alongside the ball.  The Mantle is the organ that produces mother of pearl, which in turn builds the oyster's shell.

Eighteen months later, the pearl is removed and, if the pearl is of good quality, then another larger nucleus ball is placed in the oyster.  There's a 40% chance of producing a saleable pearl on the first graft and a 70% chance on the second graft, but the quality of the pearl produced after the second time is reduced, so an oyster is normally only used to produce 3 or 4 pearls.

Buying Pearls

The quality of a pearl is determined by its roundness, size, colour, lustre and lack of flaws.  The Tahitian Black-lipped Oyster produces mother of pearl that spreads from pearly white to iridescent rainbow colours ending at the edge of the shell.  By selecting the Mantle tissue from oysters that have good iridescence, a skilled grafter can affect the colour of the pearls produced.

If the grafting process is rejected by the oyster, then a small misshapen pearl is usually produced by the inserted mantle tissue.  These are called "keshi" and are made from solid mother of pearl.  Some pearl farmers leave keshi in place for over five years to allow the oyster to grow them bigger.

We were told that pearl farming is not as profitable as it used to be because the larger farms negotiated a low wholesale selling price with the China (who is a major bulk buyer of pearls) and the whole market is now depressed.  Lots of pearl farms have closed down and the Hinano Pearl farm currently only harvests enough pearls to sell locally.

We watched the process of harvesting oysters that are too old to grow another pearl.  They are simply opened up, the pearl removed and a small muscle is removed, which is the only edible part of the oyster.  The owner’s wife was removing the pearls from the oysters and dumping them rather unceremoniously into an old plastic bottle ready to be sorted.

After our interesting little tour, we went into their pearl shop and Glenys was in heaven.  This was to be her belated birthday present and she eventually chose two earrings and a nice single pearl for a pendant.  She also bought 14 loose pearls, which we had drilled ready to make into other jewellery and couldn't resist 3 other pearls which were already set into clasps.  All in all, we walked out with 20 Polynesian Black Pearls with a variety of quality and only spent a total of $500US.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk along the road heading north towards an old lighthouse.  It was a couple of miles and a pleasant walk – nice to stretch our legs.

5 June 2014   Rotoava, Fakarava, Tuamotus
It was my birthday today – no presents of course, but I’m going to be buying myself a nice underwater camera as a belated birthday present because my old one has died.  We were intending to sail down to the south of the atoll, but the weather was horrible with grey overcast skies and the occasional shower, so we decided to stay.

Idyllic Sailing, Fakarava, Tuoamotus

Glenys dragged me off to the grocery shops, which had a better stock of vegetables today because the weekly cargo ship arrived this morning.  She actually managed to buy some lettuce, tomatoes and a bag of frozen broccoli.  We stocked up with baguettes and retired back to the boat to chill out.

I spent most of the afternoon messing about with music and my guitar, working out how to play an old blues song.  Glenys chilled out reading.  It was a quiet and very relaxing day.  The small boulangerie in town didn't have any cakes, so Glenys made me some Banana Bread for my birthday cake.

6 June 2014   Rotoava to South Pass, Fakarava, Tuamotus
We woke up to a stunningly beautiful day with blue skies and light winds - an amazing change from yesterday.  After our forced stay yesterday, we were both keen to get moving and upped anchor at eight o'clock.  The wind was 6-12 knots in the morning, so we drifted along slowly following the marked channel long the east side of the atoll.  We were hard on the wind for the first hour, but the channel soon turned more south and allowed us to fly our asymmetrical spinnaker.  It was idyllic sailing.

There are two high pressure areas in the far southern ocean which are due to bring northerly winds in a couple of days’ time.  We’re not sure how strong the winds are going to be and how long they are going to last because the forecast keeps changing.  The anchorage by the south pass is pretty exposed to northerly winds, so we stopped on the way down to look at a backup anchorage.  It looks to be well protected from north-west and even west winds, so if it gets gnarly down in the south pass anchorage then we’ll head back there. 

The wind dropped off to less than 5 knots in the afternoon and even with the spinnaker up, we were only doing 2 knots, so we turned on the engine and motored for a couple of hours.  We went into an anchorage to the west of the south pass, which is behind a set of reefs and needed some serious eyeball navigation - thank goodness that we had good light conditions. Yet another squall approaches

We anchored at 16°31.42S 145°28.47W in 7 metres of water amongst the inevitable coral heads, but there are large patches of sand.  I picked a spot where there is a shallow reef to the north-west of us, which I hope will give us a little protection when the north winds kicks in.  This is a lovely spot with crystal clear water and small motus with sandy beaches and palms trees in the distance.  There are seven boats in this huge spread-out anchorage.

7 June 2014   South Pass, Fakarava, Tuamotus
The trough arrived with a vengeance bringing horrible black skies, north winds and squalls with 25-30 knot gusts.  The reefs around us gave a some protection, but there were still 2 foot waves hitting our bow.  

At around ten o'clock, there was a lull in the squalls and it was around high water, so we tried to cross the reef to get to the south pass, where there is supposed to be excellent snorkelling, especially at high water slack.  Unfortunately another huge black squall was rapidly approaching and, in the poor light, we couldn't see a clear path over the very shallow bar, so we turned tail and ran back to the boat, scrambling aboard just before the torrential rain hit us.

The remainder of the morning was punctuated by strong squalls, so we hunkered down and put up with the pitching boat.  Later in the afternoon, the skies miraculously cleared, so we jumped in the dinghy again to go snorkelling.  The tide was going out, so we had no chance of crossing the reef and went around.  

It’s an incredible 2 miles to get around the reef and, as we were approaching the pass, we could see that the tide was still ripping out very strongly.  We decided that it would be too dangerous to get into the pass - we didn't like the idea of being swept out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean if the outboard failed, so we turned around and headed for a more sheltered place to snorkel.

Small Black Tip Shark cruises the shallows

We stopped on the north-east tip of the reef, which was quite nice.  Not a huge amount of fish or coral, but clear water.  Within ten minutes, we had two Black Tip Sharks circling us, which unnerved Glenys, so we called it a day and headed back to the anchorage.  The weather had deteriorated again by the time it was going dark.

8 June 2014   South Pass to Kaukuraroa, Fakarava, Tuamotus
It was a miserable night.  The wind wasn't particularly strong, but we had 2 foot waves all night, so we were bouncing around and the anchor was snatching making a horrible noise.  I was also worried that we might be getting close to some shallow coral heads as we veered around, so I didn't sleep very well at all.

The skies were still grey and grim at dawn.  I downloaded a GRIB file and the north winds looked like they would be around for a few more days, so we waited for a gap in the showers and upped anchor.  It was a shame that we didn't get to scuba dive or snorkel in the south pass, but the weather was against us.

We motored north along the boat channel and weathered a couple of big squalls with heavy rain and gusts over 25 knots.  On the way, “Viandante” passed by heading in the opposite direction - we haven’t seen them since Ecuador.  We chatted on the VHF radio and they have to be in Tahiti in a few days’ time, perhaps we’ll catch up with them there.

Another rain shower hit us as we dropped anchor in the Kaukuraroa anchorage at 16°17.07S 145°31.39W in 10 metres of water.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, beautifully well protected from the north and flat calm - we like it.  We were hoping to be alone here, but “Largh” was already here and “Adina” came in a couple of hours after us.

We invited David & Katrina from “Largh” and Tim and Suzie from “Adina” over for a few beers.  David brought his Melodian and Katrina brought her flute, so Glenys dug out her concertina and they played us some Irish folk music.