The Fellas

So who were the four dudes taking over Aldebaran, and would Sabrina survive the excess testosterone?

Thankfully, we have some experience with these lads… they are part of Green Coco’s origins with many trips together in the Channel Islands. In between jobs in the electric vehicle industry, Michael managed to sail with us for 7 months from California to Panama. Tiny home architect and inventor Alex explored northern Costa Rica’s gems with us, and marine data scientist Ben sailed with us to epic Isla del Coco and Galapagos. Johnny is a professional captain and craftsman who helped us skipper the boat in the early days, and build Aldebaran’s wooden ladder, compass binnacle, and net railing. These guys are all brothers to Sabrina and I.

Now we were in an adventure together in this tropical frontier archipelago– one of the most wild and challenging places to dive, fish, surf, and sail. I was glad to have this capable and stoked crew with us for this upcoming leg exploring the atolls of Tuamotos.

Hungry Wolves in a Food Desert

 

the hungry wolves… don’t be fooled by their suave appearance, they’ll eat everything within sight

 

“You guys should bring protein powder and lots of granola bars. I’m not sure how much food we’ll be able to find out here…” I told Michael. The supply ship to Fakarava had broken down so the atoll was in a slight food panic. 

Michael was visiting us in Fakarava, along with our three other high caloric intake friends – Alex, Ben, and Johnny. Our ship’s dry stores were plentiful, but the fresh food had dwindled over the last two weeks during our passage from Marquesas. How would we feed the hungry wolf pack and sustain the froth for surf, diving, and exploration??

Here’s where it pays to have great cruiser friends. Our buddies Tom & Sonya on Pakia Tea were anchored at the village of Fakarava, a full days sail (from where we were in the south pass). The winds were also very strong, gusting to 25knots. “The supply ship is finally arriving tomorrow,” Tom reported. “But you’ll never arrive on time for the fresh stuff, the food will be gone by noon.” 

 

our food saviors, Tom and Sonya on their catamaran Pakia Tea (pronounced Teh-ah). We met in the Galapagos, crossed the Pacific and met in Gambier, and now met again in Tuamotos!

 

Thankfully, they kindly offered to buy fresh produce for us at the village, and sail it down to us. I suppose they were repaying a favor: last month, we had sailed 30lbs of pamplemousse and limes from Marquesas to deliver to Tom & Sonya, who had been in Tuamotos for months already. 

What goes around comes around… we were very grateful for our friends delivering the food. Now we could start the trip with the fellas with plenty of groceries.


Three great days in Fakarava

 

Our view from the anchorage of a nice bungalow overlooking the lagoon


   

Some places are best described by the pictures… Fakarava is one of them. 

The comment in the previous post from Ellen & David was telling: they said this was their best snorkeling & scuba from several years sailing around the world. I hope this shows a glimpse of what they mean…


A surprise on the way the the restaurant… what’s that in the water??

  

The cook is filleting fish and throwing the leftovers to the blacktip sharks, swarming like hungry dogs!

 

 

Hum… it’s just 2 feet deep, but does anyone want to go swimming? check out the next photo.


 

Sabby cruising through the blacktip shallows. Turns out they are totally harmless.

 
 

The snorkeling in Fakarava’s south pass is a feast for the eyes.

  

Although the pass itself is 80 feet deep, the steep coral walls rise up to 3 feet deep, making for perfect visibility in shallow water.

Captain K freediving and stoked

Schools of fish congregating around the pier pilings owned by the dive center.

Numerous fish taking shelter under the boats.

 

A fat Napolean wrasse non chalantly munching on the reef’s goodies.

    

 

Next to the coral wall, looking up at the silvery water and the colorful fish.

Besides blacktip sharks, heftier gray reef sharks also patrol the pass.

  

 

We attach the dinghy to a mooring ball on the outside corner of the pass, and drop down the mooring line for a SCUBA dive. We keep someone aboard as a dinghy operator, and the divers drift with the current into the lagoon.

  

Diyana with oncoming traffic. Fakarava’s south pass is famous for its “wall of sharks”. It begins at around 70 feet of depth.


 

The sharks become so numerous its unbelievable.

  

Running out of air quickly because our hearts are pounding !

 

Even returning to the mothership is gorgeous… note the currents in the pass in the background.

  
 

The ladies getting ready for a big night at the …. dive center. That’s the only thing around here. The closest town is at the north pass of Fakarava, almost 30 miles away (5-6hrs by sailboat).

  

What a fine looking crew! Especially with a backdrop of mother of pearl shells. It was time to say good-bye to our wonderful friends Matt, Diyana, and Melanie. They were flying back home the next day, after three weeks on the boat sailing from Marquesas to Tuamotos.

 

I tell you what, those colors just don’t get old…


Want to see what this amazing place looks like from the air? Check it out!  

Fakarava’s South Pass: Aerial Photos

Aldebaran anchored near the South Pass. The pass is located in an area with ideal protection from the prevailing SE trade winds – which is rare for Tuamoto passes

Fakarava is a World Heritage site, famous for diving. First though, we were blown away by the view from the air. Since the sun was shining and winds were calm, we flew the Honey Bee right after anchoring, to capture these pictures. 

Satellite images and nautical charts of Tuamotos seem to indicate they are uniform “rings” of land with lagoons in the middle. Not true… As you can see from this picture, most of the “ring” is composed of sparse bits of land with channels. In fact, the majority of the atoll is just submerged reef for miles on end, with no land in sight.

We’d like thank our Green Coco Patrons (www.patreon.com/greencoconutrun) for contributing monthly to our media & video fund. This fund allowed us to buy the DJI Mavic drone (among other photographic goodies) which lets us see and share these atolls from such an unreal perspective! 

Enjoy!


  

Notice the heart-shape in the coral reef! Here is a closer view of Fakarava’s South Pass, with the dive center & small rustic hotel that houses enthusiastic divers from all over the world. The structures extending across the reef are piers for docking boats; one pier even has a restaurant for visitors.

  

We were anchored with two catamarans and a large monohull on the first day. Lots of boats come to this spot. Rough ocean outside, smooth lagoon inside

 

Aldebaran in paradise… so proud of our old trimaran for making it down here!

Sunrise departure? No worries. 

Silhouette of a motu, one of the land pieces that surround an atoll, before sunrise.

Leaving an atoll right at sunrise – in low light conditions in general – is a rare treat. Since we were anchored outside the pass in Faaite, we were able to simply pick up the anchor and head into the open ocean.

 We left early to spend time in Fakarava, one of the most famous atolls in French Polynesia, for the last few days of the visit by our dear friends Matt, Diyana, and Melanie.

There was no navigating treacherous lagoons with coral bommies; no dealing with weird currents in reef passes. Just hoist sail and watch the depth sounder quickly drop from 50 feet to 2000 feet deep in a matter of minutes. There’s no risk of running aground as you sail away into impossibly deep water…

The coronel at the bow after hoisting anchor, looking out at the horizon. Fakarava is just 12 nautical miles from Faaite, a two hour trip if we are averaging 6 knots.

Dinnertime chez Aldebaran

One of the best things about our cooperative voyage is sharing great meals with friends in Aldebaran’s cozy cockpit.

Many sailboats we’ve met have a couple aboard, who complain about not having visitors… it’s just the two of them for months on end. But most visitors require a schedule — which sailors avoid like the plague. We limit ourselves to a schedule, but we also love the ability to share this amazing experience with others.

Dinner today was cream of mushroom eggplant sauté with apple-cabbage salad. Good food and good laughs!

Coral from the air, Faaite

From the air, we can appreciate the salmon-pink hues of the coral reefs and their alternating channels of shallow and deep water. Those channels are fun to investigate with a snorkel, as Matt and Diyana did during our visit to Faaite.

It’s hard to imagine this is a living organism… which is responsible for all the land area in the Tuamotos. The mechanism? Wave action breaks old coral into tiny bits, and deposits it onto the land.

If the coral were to die, the Tuamotos would eventually disappear… fortunately the coral in the Tuamotos is one of the healthiest in the world. Their vibrancy has been a source of scientific study in an era when the world’s coral reefs are in decline due to the warming of the ocean.

Outside the pass: Faaite atoll

With our “Robo-rudder” ready for action, we set sail 50nm north-west to Faaite. This was our third atoll of this leg with Matt, Diyana, and Melanie. It is the only one so far with a legitimate anchorage outside the pass, in 45-55 feet of water, coral rubble.

The trade wind blows offshore, keeping the water smooth as the swells roll beneath us. Being anchored in the ocean was a welcome change; we still regard the lagoons with some suspicion (strong pass currents, treacherous coral bommies in unsurveyed areas, plenty of coral to snag anchor chain).

Our location also had the added advantage of seeing tons of fish and birds do their daily “dance”. Animals do a lot of their feeding outside the pass– so it’s a good place to watch the show of nature.

Can you spot the boat in this aerial shot taken by the Honey Bee? The little white speck to the right of the village…

The West Pass of Tahanea

Images from drift diving the west pass in Tahanea – our first time going on our own without a local 🙂

  

We always choose to snorkel passes in Tuamotos during the incoming tide. When the current is flooding into the lagoon, it brings clear ocean water into the pass, improving visibility. 

The outgoing tide can bring some turbid water from the lagoon. Snorkeling in a pass during an outgoing tide can also be dangerous – if the dinghy motor fails, you get swept out to sea without a way to return! C’est pas bon. 

The coral formations in Tahanea are spectacular.

  

Snorkeling with the dinghy in hand, as the current sweeps us in. Don’t let go of the dinghy! It is our lifeline. Luckily we are all drifting together at the same rate so it isn’t hard to hold on.

  

At the start of the dive the tide was slack and we went to a shallow spot on the north-west part of the pass, anchoring the dinghy to a rock.

  

Schools of needle fish hang in the shallows.

 
  

Another photo of the sailfish that we came across in the pass during our dive… magnificent. (Read about it in our previous post)

Underwater with a Sailfish

Locals in French Polynesia love to see photos of fish that we’ve caught or seen during our travels. They comment:

“Oh nice 25lb yellowfin you caught.” They proceed to mention the 100lb tuna they speared or the 800lb marlin their uncle caught. No big deal.

Then they see the photo of a sailfish that swam past us.

“Whoa! Was he just swimming next to you? Slowly?? They are usually flying along. Where is that?”

So this is the only fish photo we have that actually impresses the locals 🙂

We saw the sailfish halfway through our first drift dive in Tahanea’s western pass. We had waited until mid morning to go snorkeling when the current went slack (turning to incoming). After all, we don’t want to get swept out to sea with an outgoing current!

The current started ripping fast and we let it drift us into the lagoon. I hung onto the Lambordinghy’s line. We saw tuna and schools of jacks. Then a magnificent creature appeared from the lagoon swimming upcurrent towards us: the sailfish.

Time stopped as the sailfish approached the five of us. As we watched in amazement, he curved slowly towards us with a curious look and raised his incredible “sail” as if in greeting. Satisfied with his sight-seeing, he banked a turn and continued his swim up current.

We kicked fast with our flippers but the strong incoming current was no match for us. The sailfish made a few relaxed strokes of the tail and effortlessly swam away, in the direction of the open ocean. We saw him for more than 45 seconds – which is actually a very long time and allows our minds many thoughts from awe to slight fright and finally exuberance!

Our hysterical crew cheered and giggled at this encounter as the current swept us into the lagoon. Eventually we drifted into rough waters, which forced us to jump into Lambordinghy and head back to the pass.

How big was the sailfish? My only benchmark was the marlin that we caught in Zihuatanejo and came alongside Aldebaran, so we could measure his length at 8ft, which fishermen estimated at 300lbs. This sailfish looked a bit larger, but then again, everything looks larger underwater – particularly when you’re alone in an uninhabited atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! We felt beyond grateful for the experience of seeing this majestic animal up close in its natural environment.

Snorkeling the Bommie, Tahanea

Melanie “flying” over the shallow coral.

“Nobody around, and incredible marine life”, was our friends’ description of Tahanea atoll, 80 miles south west of Makemo. The uninhabited atoll has few visitors besides passing sailboats and occasional dive charter trips. We chose to anchor near the middle pass, which has protection from the east wind  (there are 3 passes on the atoll, all near each other on the northern side).

Tahanea atoll is 30 miles wide, located in the central part of the Tuamotos archipelago in French Polynesia.

Coral formations in Tahanea were extremely healthy.

1/8 mile east of Aldebaran’s anchorage lay a “dangerous” coral bommie marked in the charts. We took Lambordinghy to the bommie and I dove down to attach her painter line to a rock. The coral bommie was shallow and extremely pretty, like a natural aquarium.

Lambodinghy with her painter line attached to some rocks in the coral garden.

Corornel with a “five finger” clam as they call them here in French Polynesia. He left it behind as it had a living mollusk inside. We later learned that this type of clam grows slowly and is protected from harvesting when the mollusk is alive.

       

Amazed by the diversity of life at the coral bommie, we now looked forward to doing a drift dive at the pass in the following day… where we hoped to find some larger critters.

Broken! the Rudder Arm fails

Matt evaluates the damage to the rudder arm. The hole is where the rudder shaft is usually attached.

The rudder looked like a broken leg, flopped over to the side. “Oh no…” I thought. The last time I saw this we were in El Salvador and a bolt had come underdone. This time it was a lot more serious, and we were a lot more remote… 50 miles from the closest village in Tahanea, an uninhabited atoll in Tuamotos.

Satellite image of Tahanea’s west pass (ie. the gap of land in the upper part of the image) and middle pass (ie. in the lower part of the image). Just west of the middle pass is the so-called Middle Anchorage, which offers the best protection from the South-East trade winds, while still being near the passes (for diving, etc). However, it is exposed to the South winds.

Like El Salvador, we had just endured two rough nights at anchor. On the heels of a low pressure,  20-25kt South winds blew across Tahanea’s lagoon and caused 2 foot waves to crash onto our bow at anchor. Due to poor visibility from the rainstorm, we chose not to traverse the lagoon to find smooth water on the other side.  The lagoon is uncharted, and coral bommies can pop up from 50 foot depths to 3-5 feet deep. One of our sailor friends had hit a coral bommie when visibility had been reduced and was stuck on the rocks for 12hours, sustaining significant damage to the keel.

“Only traverse the lagoon when visibility is good,” was the word of warning. So we chose to stay in the exposed Middle Anchorage. Comfort-wise, we were fine on Aldebaran, but as the waves shuddered the boat backwards at anchor. Normally there is a rudder lock which keeps the rudder straight. However, the rudder lock failed and the waves overloaded the rudder.  This put an enormous amount of stress on the rudder arm, which is a stout but old cast bronze piece, and it cracked in half.

The coronel doing precision drilling on the piece we would use to “marry” the broken bronze rudder arm back together.

The failure of the rudder arm is catastrophic to the boat’s operation- it means we can’t steer the boat. The piece takes huge amounts of stress, and holds the stainless steel rudder shaft with a very specific “key-way”, so to fix it was a serious project. To avoid falling into desperation, we had to start a new company: Bad Ass Engineering. Company policy requires that we drink rum at regular intervals, speak with a southern accent, and git ‘er dune no matter what.

Laugh, so you don’t have to cry..

The Bad Ass  team  (aka B & A) crawled into Aldebaran’s wood locker and found some pieces of mahogany. We chopped them up and drilled lots of holes to connect them to the bronze rudder arm. This process took all day.

At least the surroundings were beautiful! Captain K taking the skill-saw to mahogany chunks while enjoying the backdrop.

The mahogany wood allowed us to “marry” the two pieces of bronze, using 11 bolts and 3 pieces of wood. We also added epoxy to bind the pieces and fill in the gaps.

The end result: ROBO RUDDER.

Robo-Rudder in all its glory. Note, the top right bolt had to be removed because it was catching on the bulkhead that supports the rudder. It was a very tight fitting space and we were lucky to find a solution that solidly put the arm back together.

Sailing to Tahanea atoll

We got a little too greedy…  It was hard to leave our good friends Leon & Soraya in Makemo, so we stayed a little too long… and ended up taking a little storm on the chin.

Diyana and Melanie ride the bucking bronco on our exit from Makemo’s pass. We quickly discovered that the combination of outflowing current and head winds creates nasty seas in any atoll pass!

The delightful ENE wind that we enjoyed in Makemo turned to North in anticipation of a passing low pressure. We could expect the winds to turn to West then South in the next few days (before clocking back to the ESE tradewinds) . We needed to make the most of the north winds to run towards Tahanea, an uninhabited atoll to the south-west, famous for its incredible marine life.

However, our forecast turned out to be about 18 hours behind “reality”.

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How Atolls are Formed

Aerial view of Makemo. Notice the main anchorage (with several sailboat) by the pass in the distance.

The Tuamotos used to be islands with lagoons like Tahiti and Bora Bora, but after geological activity moved on, the islands’ landmass receded into the ocean. However, the coral reefs remained, since they are a living organism that continues to grow. The corals grew so much they generate strips of “land”. If corals stopped growing, all this land would also disappear under the waves. I knew coral reefs were important, but I didn’t know they created “land” for entire societies!

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Makemo Atoll, home of Leon and Soraya

“Leon, nous sommes arrivés!” Sabrina told our friend enthusiastically over the phone, advising that we had arrived. “Magnifique!” Leon responded, and told us how to find his house — distinctly salmon colored and hanging over the water’s edge 1/2 mile after the pass.

Aldebaran anchored in Makemo. Note how narrow the land is: there is no potable groundwater, so everyone must capture rainwater and store in tanks.

How often do we arrive in a new island after 500 miles of ocean crossing and have a local expecting us with cold beer and snacks?? The answer is never. Our connection with Leon came from a surprising place.

Motor sailing in light winds to Makemo

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Deploying our Sea Anchor for the first time

 

Our 15ft Para tech sea anchor off the bow of Aldebaran before we paid out the rode.

Oh, the qualms of going “too fast”. We made better speed than we planned on our passage to Tuamotos… but it would put us at our destination (Makemo atoll) in the middle of the night. Instead of slowing the boat and spending the fourth night at sea, we decided to keep going full-speed and spend that last night in the atoll of Taenga. The catch is that we knew nothing about this atoll. 

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Planning the 4 day Tuamotos Passage

After leaving Marquesas, our original plan was to head to Raroia, in the central Tuamotos, where Thor Heyerdalh’s famous Kon Tiki raft ended up. Then we met a friendly mechanic teacher named Leon in the boatyard, who invited us to his atoll. Upon hearing we were aiming to arrive by Sabrina’s 33rd birthday, Leon announced, “It will be my pleasure to make you a dinner party!” So Makemo became our goal.

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Marquesan school kids go to Chile conference!

About a week after our Green Coco raffle, the Marquesan school kids went to Chile. (The Green Coco community fundraised nearly $2100 to gift to the non-profit Motu Haka, which is coordinating the school kids’ marine reserves. Read more on our post her)

It was the first time any of the school kids had gone outside of French Polynesia! I caught up with Pascal to hear how the trip went. Their first stop was Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island:

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Mantas at the kid’s reserve

We were snorkeling in the north part of Hakahetau’s bay when we saw a Manta Ray with a 10 foot wingspan swimming towards us. A fat remora hung to the white underside of the Manta as the spaceship-looking creature banked a big turn. I held my breath longer than was comfortable as it gracefully swam along the reef’s edge.

These encounters with majestic wildlife leave us giddy with delight! Notice the unique black markings on the Manta’s underside, similar to a Rorschach test – ecologists use these markings to identify Manta individuals.

We were snorkeling at the school kid’s marine reserve in the village of Hakahetau, NE corner of Ua Pou island. It is one of six EMMAs (Educational Marine Managed Areas) in Marquesas. We were introduced to the project by Pascal, the director of Motu Haka nonprofit, who lives in Hakahetau.

We’re proud that Green Coco’s community recently helped them raise over $2,000 in funds! Our raffle of Marquesan handicrafts was a success, and it helped the Ua Pou school kids attend a marine protected area conference in Chile to share their idea with the world.

In the next post we’ll share images from their trip, stay tuned…