The Dangerous Archipelago

01/11/08

 

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Leaving the Marquiesas islands we had a lovely sail heading south west towards the Tuamotus. 10 knots of breeze and about 80 degree wind angle is Coconuts sweet spot and it did not take long before we caught up with Manatee that left some hours before us. Coconut sails well under most conditions, but give her flat water and the wind slightly before the beam and she is unbeatable. She digs her keel in and her rounded hull shape slips effortlessly through the water. After 24 hours it was all over however and we did end up motoring as so many times before here in the Pacific. I guess there is a reason why it is called the Pacific (quiet) ocean.

When we headed for the Tuamotus or the "Dangerous Archipelago", named such by the old Whalers and discoverers, we where armed with modern navigation equipment. The GPS confidently showed us the way with only a few meters of error. In times before the GPS sailing into the Tuamotus was indeed dangerous. The many wrecks on the reefs tells the story; freighters as well as yachts and fishing boats can be found high and dry. The old sailing ships used to shun the area rather sailing  far to the north or south of the several hundred kilometers with reef infested waters that forms the Tuamotus. The last of the yachts to end it's journey here, and probably the most famous, is Gipsy Moth of Round-the-world racing fame. She was taken out of the museum exhibition in the UK and restored with much fanfare. Then entered in a round-the-world rally by a large British crew training company, UKSA. Unfortunately their captain took her right up on the reef misjudging the currents in the pass into an atoll here in the Tuamotus. Not particularly good PR  for someone who makes their living from teaching navigation! Gipsy Moths trip was widely published by Yachting Monthly and it hit the press and made headlines. They did lift the boat off the reef however and sent her to New Zealand for repairs.

End of the road

We choose Manihi as our first stop in the Tuamotus as it seemed like a good starting point for discovering the other atolls being placed to the North East of the island chain. As it was ,that never really happened. We ended up staying for 2 weeks! Manihi is the cradle of the Polynesian Black pearl. It was here that pearl farming started in the 1960's to meet demands for Mother-of- pearl for buttons and later pearls for jewelry. Today there are some pearl farming left in the lagoon but much fewer than it used to be. Some of the pearl farms had over a hundred workers when they where busy. Pollution from the oysters became a problem and the quality of the pearls went down. The competition also became very tough as many of the other atolls started pearl farming. With pearls flooding the market in Papeete prices went down.

Small pearl farm

When entering an atoll it is important to have your timing right. The atolls in the Tuamotus are more or less a body of water surrounded by a reef. In some places the reef forms little islands, or Motus covered by Coconut palms. Every atoll has one or more passes where a boat can enter the lagoon. This also happens to be where all the water flows in and out of the atoll as the tide changes. Waves pounding over the reefs on the windward side deposit water inside the reef that needs to get out somehow reinforcing the outgoing tide. Manihi is some 20 nautical miles long and 5 miles wide so it holds a lot of water. There is no surprise then that the flow through the pass can be quite strong. It is not unusual with 6 - 8 knots in the deeper passes making progress very difficult, if not impossible, for a small sailing yacht.  When so much water meets the wind born waves it creates large standing waves and turbulent maelstroms further complicating things for the tired mariner wanting to transit the pass.

Approaching Manihi

We arrived at the pass in Manihi just as the sun was setting. Not ideal for spotting coral and shallows, but we where delighted to find that the entrance was marked by red and green markers.  The prospect of having to wait outside till the morning was grim so we decided to have a go at it despite all our rules about not entering an unknown anchorage at night. Manatee, having made it trough the pass before us, where able to guide us towards the anchorage shining a spotlight at us in the dark and providing waypoints over the radio.  It was quite a eerie feeling though to go into an unknown lagoon without decent charts in a fading light. But we where lucky as the current in the pass was slow. Instead of heaving-to outside the lagoon waiting for the first light, we enjoyed our first really good sleep since Panama anchored in the flat waters inside.

Our first morning here was action packed as we joined the family on Aldora for a drift dive in the entrance to the atoll. If you time it right you can start outside the entrance and get pushed along the edge of the reef all the way into the atoll by the incoming tide. It was very funny seeing the kids getting whisked along by the water doing funny things like trying to run backwards and drifting along in a Lotus position. The water flooding into the lagoon was crystal clear and fish of all sizes and shapes and color where everywhere. We saw angel fish, butterfly fish, trumpet fish, moray eels, octopus and many more, including small reef sharks. It was such fun we did it twice and just about every day since while we stayed in the lagoon.

Reefs and crystal clear water

Manihi fits all the descriptions of what a pacific paradise should be; Crystal clear water, palm trees, coral reefs, excellent snorkeling and wonderful island people. What made Manihi so special for us was that we met the most wonderful man Fernando and his family. They took us under their wings and made our stay here one we will never forget. We got a taste of real Polynesian hospitality.

The Bakery

Fernando is the local baker on Manihi but also a pearl farmer, Noni farmer (a medecinal plant) and president of the Mormon church. He had just closed up shop when we met him, but insisted on giving us baguettes and cakes for free. We asked if he knew where we could get laundry done and he said we should come over to his Moto (island ) and do it there since he had a washing machine and plenty of rainwater! So we zoomed over there in the dinghy and washed our salty clothes behind his house. Clean clothes is something taken for granted when you live ashore. On a boat to have access to a washing machine is pure luxury.

Washing clothes

While we where there Fernands son Vaitea (23) asked Trond if he would like to join him spear-fishing on the outside reef in the late afternoon. That was an offer that could not be turned down so they set off  on the out going tide and dived on the drop off. The reef was teeming with life, with plenty of fish and black tip reef sharks. When Trond shot a grouper he was not surprised when a shark came by and snatched it off the end of his spear. Vaitea had developed this technique for keeping the sharks away. He would grab his fish and press it firmly against his body to stop them thrashing in the water. This way the sharks would not pick up the vibrations.....

Ferdnand Stella

This turned out to be the start of two action packed weeks with Ferdnand and his family. They took us line fishing, spear fishing, and any form of fishing you can think of catching Tuna, Bonito, Unicorn fish and travelli. One night his wife Stella cooked a huge dinner for all of us and they showed us how to bake fish in the ground true Polynesian style. The pet coconut crab was also introduced to us. The force on its claws was enormous and he can crack open a coconut without any problem. If you get your finger caught in their claws it will surely be broken!

Cooking Polynesian style

Every morning as the bakery closed at 0700 Ferdnand would arrive with a bag of baguettes. It was Camillas job then to bring this out to the yachts in the anchorage and try to sell some. Without fail she sold all the baguettes every morning. It was a fun way to get to know everyone and to feel that we somehow contributed.

One morning Stella asked Camilla and Lesley if they would like to make some shell decorations with her. So they went out to the pearl farm where Camilla and Lesley where thought how to glue together coral, drift wood, shells and pearls to make a "pearl tree". They turned out beautifully and we took them back to the boat as souvenirs. Each "pearl tree" was covered with over 60 pearls, but none of any value as only the perfect ones make it to the shops. For every 100 oysters you harvest, you only get about 14 pearls that are of good enough quality to sell in the jewelry shops. If they are flawed in any way they are put aside. The family literally had jars and bags full of pearls of all shapes and colors. Stella also made us each a hat of woven palm leaves to keep the sun out.

Camilla making "Pearl Tree"

The highlight was a trip to the northern part of the atoll called "the sector". This part of the atoll is uninhabited and there are only coconut plantations to be found there. Fernando picked us up in the morning and we went in his fast boat together with Manatee and Magic Roundabout. It took us 2 hours to get to the sector and on the way we stopped at several pearl farms and also a place where a man was preparing copra. The guys tried their hand at opening and emptying the coconut shells and agreed that it looked much easier when the locals did it! We also did some net fishing in an inlet where the sea water was rushing in, and Colin had to walk in shallow water thrashing with a branch of leaves to scare the fish into the net. Once at the sector we made a fire and grilled the fish for lunch on the beach. There we were able to snorkel with the sharks and Trond came face to face with a large manta ray that was feeding. We caught a shark on a line and pulled it in to look at his teeth and then let it go again. We arrived back at the boat in the evening and were exhausted from such an action packed day.

Copra  Black Tip Reef Shark From The Sector

One Sunday we were invited to the Mormon Church, and after sitting through a 3 hour church meeting and discussion groups on moral dilemmas in French and Polynesian we ate an enormous lunch at Fernandos house. We were served roast veal, raw tuna, fried fish and chips and salad. We had his whole family, some Mormon missionaries and local kids onboard in the afternoon as they wanted to see the boat. It was quite a crowd. They commented on how small the boat was and did feel a bit sorry for us having to live in such a small space! We are so used to it by now that we don't notice what is obvious to any land dweller; boats are smaller than houses.

Sunday Lunch

The day came when we had to leave Manihi. It was very very hard but we had to keep moving west as we are to cover a huge area before we arrive in Australia. After saying goodbyes we hoisted anchor and headed for the pass. Well through the pass we saw a speedboat heading for us. It was Fernand. Stella and him just wanted to give us some Cowrie shells as a last goodbye present. These amazing people could just not stop giving and will live in our harts forever.

 

 

 

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