Makemo’s Trou de la Baleine

Trou de la Baleine, the blue pool in the foreground. Aldebaran is the dark dot anchored in the background near the motu surrounding the lagoon.

The story goes that ancient Makemo natives would paddle their outriggers after humpback whales that entered the pass, and “corral” them towards the eastern corner of the atoll; then proceed to kill one of the whales and feast on it for weeks. Hence the “Trou de la Baleine” was named, translated to “Hole of the Whales”, a remarkably blue and deep sandy pool in the easternmost part of the atoll.

Our anchorage was 1/4 mile from the Trou de Baleine, in 6 feet of water with pure sand, the anchor chain visible in the clear water. To enter this area required a long and careful navigation around many shallow coral bommies, with good visibility as usual. The prevailing easterly tradewind blows over the land so the water is smooth as a duck’s pond.

Heading out on the Lambordinghy with spearguns

Sabrina swimming in the Trou de la Baleine.

Our friend Henere had a go at spearfishing in the Trou de la Baleine but a lemon shark scared him off!

The Trou de la Baleine is 11nm east/south-east of the village of Makemo, but slow progress is required due to the large density of coral bommies around this lagoon — to get the sun above you for visibility, it is best to transit towards the east after 11:30am and arrive before 3:30pm, and then back to the west between 9:30am and arrive before 1:30pm; otherwise, the glare from the sun prevents seeing the coral bommies.

Location of Trou de la Baleine

Walking across the shallows in the eastern side of the atoll

Coral and Clams mingling in the shallows

Green Coconuts are the best! 

Birthday in Makemo!

From Left to Right: Henere, Leon, Capt K, Soraya, and Kumuhei. Sabrina is taking the picture!

To celebrate Capt K’s 37th birthday, we invited our local friends in Makemo to join us on a 4 day excursion around their atoll. Let’s start with a bit about our friends:

Leon & Soraya: awesome people who love their atoll’s turquoise water!

Leon & Soraya — we met Leon in Marquesas, at the Hiva Oa Boatyard, while repairing the fiberglass damages on Aldebaran (in July of 2017). He’s incredibly enthusiastic about everything he does, and kindly invited us to spend Sabrina’s birthday in Makemo last year, on our way through the Tuamotos.  So it’s uncanny that now, the following year, we were celebrating Kristian’s birthday with them too! Leon is a professor of mechanical repair at the college in Makemo, and Soraya is a retired admin from the government center.

Henere & Kumuhei: They are neighbors of Leon and all teach at the same school. We met them at a pizza party that Leon organized at his home (he’s got an amazing wood-burning oven!). This lovely couple grew up in Tahiti, and just moved to Makemo a few months ago after completing their teaching credentials in France. Henere teaches physical education and Kumuhei teaches English. Living in the Tuamotos is a new experience for them, but they are embracing the atoll life to the fullest!

Loading up the crew at the Makemo wharf, with a stern anchor in 10 feet of sand, and bow line to the dock cleats.

My biggest surprise was how excited all four friends were about being aboard the sailboat. “There are no mosquitoes! The view over the water is so magnificent! Life on the boat is so fun!” They kept exclaiming with glee. I never realized that being on a sailboat would bring them so much joy to the locals who seem to live the ocean life daily! This in turn gave us a lot of satisfaction.

These guys were incredible crewmates– always present and nearby ready to lend a hand with the anchor or loading equipment, keeping a lookout for coral heads to avoid, and generally making our life as captains running the boat remarkably easy.

We went to two spots on the atoll: the motus in the SE side called Napahere, and the shallow anchorage in the far eastern corner, called “Trou de la Baleine” or Whale’s Hole.

 

The most distinct thing about cruising with locals was how they created so much food and camp comforts directly from the land, with very little. Here was the approximate order of events for the first 24 hours:

  • 2pm. Arrival at the Motu Napahere. Within 10 minutes of dropping anchor Leon and Henere were campaigning to spearfish, which we harvested fresh fish until late afternoon
  • 3:30am. Leon and I went to shore with the full moon to look for lobsters
  • 9am. The crew goes to the beach to set up camp, by turning palm fronds into floor mats, serving dishes, and shade; they start a fire to bake breadfruit, lobster; gather brown coconuts on the ground for coconut milk, and green coconuts for drinking coconut water;
  • 12pm. With very little to start, a decadent feast is created!

Upon arrival in the motus, Soraya got to work taking down palm fronds from the coconut trees to start “decorating and furnishing” our camp. These become lovely floor mats for meal time.

Breadfruit from the village was toasted over the fire that Leon made on the beach.

Brown coconuts from the ground around the motu were harvested and we grated them to make coconut milk for the poisson cru (Polynesia’s staple sashimi dish)

Close-up of the coconut milk process: grated coconut flesh (from hard, brown coconuts) is then squeezed through a tshirt (or cheese cloth) to extract delicious coconut milk unlike anything you can imagine!

 

Grilled lobster fresh caught that morning.

A little bit of the feast over the palm fronds… simple and glorious.

Naturally, we have to cap it off with this image, which captures the essence of the “Green Coconut Run”! Sharing the Good living!

10 Rules of Spearfishing with Sharks in Tuamotos

After missing a shot with my speargun, I’m surprised that within 10 seconds there are a number of reef sharks clustering around the scene to see if they can take advantage of an easy meal.

The Tuamotos (French Polynesia) are full of fish, but they are also full of reef sharks. This is one of the archipelago’s wonderful attractions: observing these magnificent creatures from up close, on a daily basis. Fortunately, according to the locals, the sharks are 99% harmless to humans — except if you are spearfishing.

Some background: Reef sharks spend most of their time cruising right next to schools of fish without giving them any grief. The reality is that fish are really fast and are quite difficult for sharks to catch. Like us, they don’t want to waste their energy chasing things they aren’t likely to catch. Sharks need a competitive advantage — hunting at night, hunting in packs, or finding vulnerable fish. Speared or hook caught fish qualify as the latter option. In their excitement, sharks can inadvertently take a bite at whatever happens to be next to the dying fish, such as the spearfisher’s arm, so special attention is needed.

Kristian and Ethan diving down for a shot at some fish. You want a good shot to ensure the fish is immediately put down and ideally does not struggle, so you can get the fish out of the water as soon as possible.

Last year, after our arrival, we spent several weeks in the Tuamotos before even trying to spearfish; and then still we proceeded very cautiously. The turning point for us came when we met Bruno, a Tahitian spearfishing champion who now lives in Faaite atoll.  Bruno taught us much about both lagoon reef hunting and pelagic pass hunting in a series of memorable dives. Since then, we have cross-checked that knowledge with a few dozen spearfishers in Tuamotos.

Eventually, we came to understand the principles of when it is safe to spear fish, and how to do it.  Our experience culminated in our spearfishing sessions in Makemo’s north pass, which has the highest abundance of reef sharks we’ve seen in Tuamotos– along with Fakarava and Haraiki atolls. Here is what we have learnt, digested into 10 handy rules:

Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy”. Here Sabrina demonstrates the technique of grabbing the (spear)gun and fending off sharks, while Ethan the shooter has the fish which is still held in the actual spear. It sure is nice to have two sets of eyes in this situation!

Another view of the above photo: Ethan holds the goat fish above the water while keeping an eye down below.

 

10 RULES OF SPEARFISHING WITH SHARKS

Rule #1: “Always dive with a buddy.” Your buddy should grabs your gun and act as the ‘bouncer’, to make sure no toothy guests enter your party uninvited. This is mainly accomplished by maintaining eye contact. Don’t jab them or make sudden movements — unless absolutely necessary.

Rule #2: “Show no fear.” Sharks sense fear & anxiety. They become excited especially if your movements are erratic and involve splashing. If you’re afraid, don’t spearfish. You will profit from diving with them (sans gun) several more times to get comfortable, and realize they are not dangerous unless you have an injured fish next to you.

Rule #3: “Shoot smaller fish; and get them out of the water quick.” Once the fish is held out of the water, the sharks are no longer sure where it is, and the feedback mechanism instigating their excitement slows down. Smaller fish fight less than bigger fish, so are easier to handle.

 

If fish parts are discarded off the back of the sailboat, it  no longer remains a friendly, attractive swimming environment.

Rule #4: “Get a kill shot whenever possible.” Sharks respond more to the vibrations of a flailing fish in the water – and the excitement of their fellow shark friends – than anything else. If the spear paralyzes/kills the fish with a head shot, you reduce the chances of attracting predators to the scene and creating a mob effect.

Rule #5: “Look before shooting – especially for Gray Reef Sharks.” Like crossing the road, look both ways!  Ideally, there should be no sharks within sight when you swim down to shoot fish, in particular for Gray Reef Sharks, which are considered aggressive and unpredictable. Other reef sharks, like black tips and white tips, are much milder and pose no significant threat.

Rule #6: “If you just had a recent fight and are upset due to a quarrel, spearfishing is not recommended.” Although I can’t validate the theory that a disturbed frame of mind due to an argument adds to potential hazard of sharks… however, many locals have mentioned this to me. In fact, they didn’t just say spearfishing in such a condition is unrecommended, they said “c’est interdit” (it’s prohibited). Clear words of wisdom!

 

Reef sharks chasing our fish scraps. It’s true that reef sharks aren’t considered “dangerous”, but it is also true that when they are very excited / in mob behavior they could make mistakes. As the locals say, “The sharks are polite. But be attentive.”

Rule #7: “If a shark is going for your fish, let them have it.” Seems like an obvious one, but a number of spearfishers hug the fish in an attempt to paralyze it and “hide their catch” from the predators. And you guessed it, that is the most common way that spearfishers get injured by sharks!

Rule #8: “It’s usually safer to spearfish inside lagoons.” Shark populations are usually more sparse deeper in the Tuamoto lagoons, compared to the reef passes and on the outside of the atoll, where sharks are most abundant (and it’s typically deeper, which adds to the amount of time it takes to get the fish out of the water). Plus, currents are usually milder inside the lagoons, which makes it easier to return to your dinghy.

 

“Shark-infested waters”? The truth is that the sharks seen in this picture are black-tip reef sharks, which are very mellow creatures. However, if you see gray reef sharks, keep a sharp lookout; they are curious, fearless, and occasionally aggressive. Hence the importance of identifying the different types of sharks.

 

Rule #9: “Wait for good visibility.” The incoming current and lack of wind chop can greatly increase the water clarity and your ability to scan for sharks. Obviously, don’t spearfish around sunrise or sunset as nighttime is their active feeding time.

Rule #10: “Discard fish parts in non-swimming areas!” We learned this the hard way, after filleting fish on Aldebaran at anchor.  An enormous congregation of 20+ sharks began swimming around our boat, and they took a long time to dissipate. This made showering in the ocean at night much more nerve-jarring than it should be!

 

Ethan gutting a white goat fish at the dock, instead of the back of the boat. It pays to take a dinghy ride to shore for fillet duty! Note the parrot fish on the left side of the picture — the parrot fish is a staple of the diet in French Polynesia for many reasons. There is a conservation concern about their over-fishing, since parrot fish contribute significantly to the health of coral reefs.

There is an added complication to fishing (in general) in the Tuamotos: ciguatera poisoning, a toxin from algae that bioaccumulates in reef fish. In every atoll there are different types of fish that may or may not be consumed; along with a number of fish which are always safe. Always ask locals before eating fish to confirm that particular type of fish is safe in the area.

A whole new world…

I’ve spent countless hours of my life around waves, but I had never seen them quite this way before! This was the first time I ever brought a mask and snorkel into the waves, and I found it truly enchanting… It’s a whole new world!

There is all kinds of life happening under the waves. Fish are nibbling at the coral and the algae, swaying back and forth with the push and pull of the swells. Schools of little fish dart around the white wash using it as protection from predators.

The waves break with explosive force but underwater it’s still calm. The vortices of whitewash make incredible patterns, backlit by the sunshine above.

Having FUN in the waves.

This is the view from the beach. Who could imagine that all that magic is happening underwater just offshore? Having a mask & snorkel is like having a superpower… the ability to see what is not at all apparent. Add waves to the equation for a totally mind-blowing experience of fluid dynamics!

Snorkeling the west pass

The drop off at the west pass of Makemo is incredible! We anchored the dinghy right at the pass (note white dot in the aerial photo above), from where we could snorkel in the shallows and hover over the depths. The only catch? Be sure to do this on incoming tide, which is fairly mellow at this location. The outgoing tide rips like a river current!

View of the bright red coral rocks at the pass.

Atolls are like icebergs… the vast majority is underwater.

Just looking at the water’s surface is transfixing when the colors are this vivid.

Sabrina with the lambordinghy.

Lots of beautiful coral around the west pass of Makemo.

Looking across the pass to the other side.

Wonderful coral formations in the shallows. Epic snorkeling in 1 ft of water.

I couldn’t get enough of this drop-off… with turquoise water covering shallow coral on one side, and cobalt blue deep water on the other side, plummeting down into the 100ft deep pass, different layers of coral communities as you went down….

Makemo’s West Pass: Bird’s Eye View

Makemo is the among the four largest atolls in Tuamotos (after Rangiroa and Fakarava; and it is slightly larger than Hao in comparison).

Makemo’s West Pass is a unique place — this may be the most remote pass of the larger atolls in French Polynesia. Remoteness, as we’ve discovered, equates very closely with abundant marine life! It is 26 nautical miles from the atoll’s village, which by sailboat is 4-5hours or by power boat 1.5hours. This makes it a little far for the locals to visit with regularity, so fishing pressure is vastly reduced; and there is negligible tourism in the atoll besides sailboat transit.

The nook in the reef, where we are anchored, provides decent protection from the East, and excellent protection from the North-East through to the South-West. For South or South-East winds, the deeper part of the cove would offer protection, which we evaluated by snorkel and deemed adequate for a draft as shallow as 6 feet.

The downside of this anchorage? It is “choc-a-bloc” with coral bommies littering the anchorage, which means that using floats on anchor chain is an absolute must, and the ability to dive to depths of 50ft on the anchor is also critical, as likelihood of the chain being snagged is… 100% certainty, even with floats. This is a non-trivial challenge to overcome when visiting this spectacular place.

Navigating a Reef Pass with a Broken Throttle Cable

The wind freshened and Aldebaran was back under sail, cantering like a horse in open pasture. However, our estimated arrival time, based on our current speed of 6 knots, was 1am in Makemo. No good! Rule #1 is never arrive in the dark, especially when it’s your first time in a reef pass.

So we took down the mainsail, and just plodded along with the genoa headsail at 4 knots. Nevertheless, by 3am we were just a few miles from the reef pass. So we “hove to”, which is a technique to park the boat mid-ocean. I set my alarm for 5:30am and got some shut eye.

As dawn broke, we motored the last 45 minutes to the reef pass. Peering through the binoculars, we surveyed the pass: the current looked mild, without any standing waves caused by strong current. We kept motoring into the pass at an even pace.

Then spontaneously, just as we were flanked with the waves breaking on both sides of the pass, the engine suddenly lost power! It was still running in forward gear, in idle, but didn’t respond to acceleration — the throttle cable had snapped! The boat lost momentum and started slipping out of control due to the current eddies. I hollered at the crew standing watch on deck, and did a u-turn to take Aldebaran back to sea, a maneuver assisted by the mild outgoing current.

Aldebaran drifted outside the pass without danger, as the wind was blowing us away from the land. Unfortunately, the outflowing current was supposed to strengthen substantially during the next 30 minutes so we had to work fast.

After shutting down Mr. Isuzu, we opened the hot engine compartment and saw the throttle cable had broken at the connecting point with the engine’s throttle lever. After attempting a jury rig with tape for 10 minutes, I ended up attaching a string directly to the engine’s throttle lever. Sabrina made a loop on the other end to hold onto — like a waterskier hanging onto a line — and by leaning her weight back, she could pull on the lever, and accelerate the engine. Bingo!

Since we had to keep the compartment open for the string to pass, the diesel engine was making a cacophony. Sabrina wore big earmuffs to shield the noise. “If the string breaks,” I told her, pointing into the sauna-like heat of the engine compartment, “You’ll have to jump in there and pull on this level over here, ok?” She nodded with wide-eyed apprehension.

“Ready to go!” I told Gary and Ethan, our lookouts on the deck. They smiled, not quite knowing just how jury-rigged our throttle cable was. No need to cause alarm, I thought!

The string solution worked like a charm – thanks to Sabrina’s diligent effort. We motored through the pass and then meandered through a series of coral bommies to reach the anchorage. Poor Sabrina was feeling disoriented facing backwards, watching the landscape whiz by on either side, focused on her task of pulling the throttle string. She was relieved when I gave her the word to relax — we could now easily coast in idle into our anchor spot . We dropped the hook and the boat was safe. Success!

The next day, I removed the throttle cable — it had broken just a few millimeters from the end, where the metal threads attach onto the engine lever. Wow, there is no way we’d even suspect that strong metal rod might ever fail! 4000 hours of engine vibration in one little spot did the trick!

We have a spare throttle cable on Aldebaran but we didn’t need to use it — there were still sufficient threads in the existing throttle cable’s metal end to reattach to the lever. Two hours later, hands filthy with rust & grease, the boat was back in action. However, we weren’t planning on going anywhere. It was time to relax in Makemo’s west pass, and enjoy what this wild remote area had to offer.

Escape from Haraiki

It was time to leave the jewel of Haraiki — but now we were more intimidated about exiting than we were entering! As they say, ignorance is bliss….

The South swell was calm, less than 1m, so we weren’t worried about the waves at the pass (but a South-West swell was due to arrive the next day, so we couldn’t dilly-dally). We were concerned about the coral minefield. Although the sun was shining and visibility was much better than when we entered the atoll, we didn’t want to take any chances.

Haraiki’s entrance runs for 1/2 mile with depth of 10-15ft deep coral. Pinnacles of coral rise to the surface in random fashion, creating a minefield for a sailboat.

A THOROUGH SURVEY

To give ourselves the best chance of exiting without hitting coral, we did a thorough survey with the dinghy. We took it through the entire pass, marking waypoints on the handheld GPS for the route that appeared best, along with notes such as “turn hard right after this spot”.

We transferred all 20 waypoints marking the “best route” across the minefield, from the handheld GPS (the grey device on the table) to the ship’s GPS .

 

 

Our first step in our survey was to fly Honey Bee, our Mavic drone. From high in the air we could easily see the coral bommies and find the path of least resistance. We followed with the dinghy marking waypoints throughout the pass.

Doing the first step of our survey with the Honey Bee sped things up as we got a bird’s eye view of the terrain.

This aerial shot looking straight down captures what we were looking for: dark blue water (deeper) indicating the best route to take around the coral bommies. The Crux were the two areas of tight coral pinnacles, evident at the top and bottom of the frame – the tightest corners we had to make.

We had a good grasp on the zone we called “The Crux” (it was challenging due to the tight corners we’d have to navigate around dry coral)  but the area closest to the pass was not so straightforward. The depth was hard to discern from the air or from the dinghy. So we jumped into the water for an underwater snorkeling survey.

The area close to the pass was difficult to evaluate from the air — note all the scattered coral pinnacles toward the center of the frame, which aren’t “dry coral”, but might be less than 6 feet deep, posing a hazard to Aldebaran.

The four of us – Ethan, Gary, Sabrina and I, swam through different sections of the pass entrance and re-grouped to take note of the shallow zones. There were several narrow, underwater coral pinnacles coming to within 4 feet of the surface, which is Aldebaran’s draft, so we had to take note of them and find a better path.

Ethan swimming across a shallow spot of 2-3 feet deep, right in the middle of the pass.

 

We got a chance to enjoy the gorgeous underwater scenery of Haraiki’s coral one last time… the coral structures were  a source of great beauty and inspiration, but also a source of deep anxiety for navigating our boat!

Farewell black-tips!

Upon returning to Aldebaran, this rain band moved through and blotched out the visibility… so we waited 30 minutes for the skies to clear again. I’m happy they did!

Raising anchor… chain gets easily wrapped around coral bommies in the Tuamotos, so it can be really helpful to have a snorkeler in the water, directing the boat and the crew lifting the anchor. This helps ease strain on the windlass, and makes the process much faster. “Floating the chain” with 2 or 3 buoys also helps keep the chain from snagging on the coral bottom.

Ethan at the bow raising anchor chain with the windlass. Meanwhile, I’m in the water directing the boat to move around the bommies, so as to free the anchor chain that is being lifted.

One last view of the beach in front of our anchorage — spectacular! We used this landmark to evaluate the tides to ensure we would be exiting closer to high tide with as much water under our keel as possible. We were grateful this timing of the tides lined up with good overhead sun direction necessary for visibility.

Navigating through the coral minefield with great conditions. Looks like a walk in the park!

The exit was carefully choreographed: we wanted to leave no room for mistakes!  At the helm, I sloooowly followed the GPS waypoints from our survey, and kept an eye on the depth. Nevertheless, I still need a lot of direction from the crew on where exactly to make the turns around the coral bommies (as you can tell, they are invisible from where I stand near the cockpit!) so Sabrina used the VHF radio to communicate from her lookout at the the bow pulpit.

Note the waves crashing at the pass in disorganized fashion. Even though the South swell was less than 1m, occasional sets still pushed through which could be a serious hazard.  Most navigable passes in Tuamotos have depths of 50-90 feet, and the waves peel very predictably along the reef. However, in Haraiki, the waves break in disorganized fashion because it is only 20-30 feet deep for 300 yards out to sea. So once we got to the edge of the pass, after the minefield, we waited a few minutes to observe, before motoring out.

High Five! We are outside the pass, safe and sound!

One last view of Aldebaran at anchor in Haraiki — a gorgeous spot we may never return to. Unless the conditions are absolutely calm, it is just too dangerous to navigate into. We entered only because we weren’t totally aware of how hazardous it would be. Ignorance then, bliss now!

We were through the pass, back in the open sea… back to safety.  We were now enroute to Makemo, the final destination in our 18 day trip with Gary & Ethan.

Spectacular underwater jewels, Haraiki

“Bizarre,” I thought, as I looked at the corals below me. “The sun is already low in the horizon, hidden behind the clouds. The visibility should be marginal. Yet it is so clear. What is going on?” I wondered, looking around with astounding clarity at the diversity of marine creatures.

(Click here for more Green Coco posts about Haraiki atoll, in Tuamotos, French Polynesia)

The Tuamotos is famous for clear water: “100ft plus visibility” is common outside the lagoons, at least. Yet here in Haraiki it was “next level”; the fish & corals looked like a 3D movie, ‘popping’ in the sheer transparency of the water. Part of the reason for picture perfect water, I realized, was the shallowness of the reef pass (10-20ft) and the small size of the atoll, which meant a lack of sediment.

The next surprise: the white tip reef sharks were remarkably… BOLD. Usually they are quite timid, compared to the somewhat more confident black tips, and especially the crazy-eyed, often fearless gray reef sharks. But here the white tips were swimming right up to us, not veering away as they usually do when we face them. It was unnerving. 

“Errr maybe it’s shark feeding hour, and we should come back tomorrow morning,” I rallied Gary and Ethan back to the dinghy. 

Although the white tips were more relaxed the next day, they were still the most curious sharks I’ve ever encountered. They kept doing loops to check us out – not menacing, just really curious. Watching  from this close was transfixing: their cat-like narrow eyes, and bodies undulating like dancing snakes. 

If the multitudes of sharks ever got boring, you could spend hours looking at the nuanced details of every coral formation in Haraiki’s pass. It was a huge carpet of fervent life. 

The Tuamotos is renown as a rare archipelago in the world whose corals are improving in quality. The lack of human population & fishing pressure, and possibly cooler water temperatures, are some of the reasons why the coral in Tuamotos is in great shape – at least outside the lagoons (in comparison, inside the lagoons there is a widespread degree of mortality in corals, especially near villages; and in the Society Islands, much more so.)

However, in none of the other 10 Tuamoto atolls we’ve visited, I’d never seen coral at this level of peak health (Tahanea and Makemo are next in line). The corals’  colors, shapes, and textures were a true thing of beauty.  The shallow water  created fantastic lighting, and closeness made it feel like we were hovering over an entire city of coral. We floated past sky scrapers of coral and looked down at suburban neighborhoods; their resident fish and organisms flying through the water column like futuristic self-driving vehicles, commuting to work or play.

Black tip sharks

When we were exhausted from being underwater, we explored the motus surrounding the boat, collected shells from the coral-debris beach, and harvested coconuts.

The “land” in the Tuamoto atolls is mostly composed of coral debris which is washed up by the waves and currents. If the coral stopped growing, these islands would disappear.

Well, if we got stuck here, we could surely survive on these huge coconuts!

Despite being amazed by Haraiki’s underwater world, and thoroughly enjoying  the deserted island, a thought still nagged at our brains. We still had to navigate Aldebaran back out of Haraiki, through the minefield of coral and breaking waves in the pass, before the next swell was due to arrive.

We still needed to “escape” this little paradise…

Haraiki’s nearly impossible entrance

This is one of those places that you think: “Well, if we shipwreck here and the trip is done, it will have been worth it.”  It was THAT beautiful.

The dangers weren’t just imaginary: later we learnt from our Tuamotos friends that at least two power boats with copra have been lost to this pass, and they were baffled that we had entered this pass with Aldebaran. We knew it was sketchy but we didn’t realize just how dangerous it was.

(Click here for more Green Coco posts about Haraiki atoll, in Tuamotos, French Polynesia)

BACKGROUND

Why Haraiki? We are always looking for atolls that are uninhabited yet have navigable passes. We met a couple in their late 50s on a brand-new sailboat that had entered Haraiki and raved about it. While they warned us frankly about the difficulty of the pass, their benchmark for adventure was obviously much higher than I had assumed!

The major problems with entering (and leaving) Haraiki are two-fold: 1) the breaking waves in the pass; and 2) the minefield of coral bommies just inside the very shallow waters. On the plus side, it is a tiny atoll (1nm wide) so the currents are minor.

FIRST ISSUE: BREAKING WAVES

Haraiki’s pass faces due south, and has no protection from other atolls. The constant stream of swells from the southern hemisphere slams head first into this pass. Forget about ever going here during April to October, at the peak of the south swell season. During November to March, the south swell dies off but there are still pulses of swell that could close out the whole pass for days on end.

We arrived in mid March with a dying south swell, SSW 1.2m going to 0.8m @11 sec. From our forecast, we figured we only had 3-4 days before a 2m @15sec SW swell was arriving, and we’d be stuck inside.

SECOND ISSUE: CORAL MINEFIELD

Our friends had entered Haraiki on a monohull, so we figured we’d be ok in our trimaran with shallower draft. The subtle difference: the issue here wasn’t the draft (depth of the water), as much as maneuverability around the pinnacles and coral bommies that sprouted to the surface of the channel (bommies are coral formations that come from deeper water to the surface of the ocean, like apartment buildings in a city of coral).

Turns out our friends on the monohull had an advantage over us: their brand-new 45ft sloop has a bow thruster, which is a little sideways propeller on the bow of the boat. It allows them to spin the boat on a dime, and turn around tight, narrow channels. Meanwhile, our 42ft long 21 ft wide trimaran only has 1 propeller, and turns like a raft in a summer camp; only with lots of persuasion, and without lots of control.

Sabrina at the bow with a portable VHF to communicate with Kristian steering the boat in the cockpit. Gary and Ethan kept watch for hazards on each side of the boat.

This photo illustrates the issues of “visibility”. The glare of the sun (left side of frame) makes going into the sun impossible, compared to where the sun is shining onto (right side of frame). Also compare this photo with the lighting in the photo above with Sabrina holding the VHF, which is into the sun — it is much darker and hard to see. Hence, we must always enter new reef passes and navigate inside unsurveyed lagoons with a favorable angle to the sun. Ideally, when the sun is high (10am-2pm is best) and also slightly behind to prevent glare, can we then see the hazardous shallow coral bommies. This ‘timely precision’ is hard to achieve on a sailboat, given the shifts in weather… making this one of the great challenges of navigating in Tuamotos archipelago.

THE ENTRANCE

We sailed overnight from Amanu 150nm. That morning there were baby bird blue skies, so we were optimistic. Then, clouds and light squalls began in the afternoon. It was fairly cloudy when we arrived at Haraiki, putting a damper on our hopes. The visibility was not “stellar” as we had hoped; but at least the sun’s angle was ok.

During the past 7 years we’ve anchored next to many surf spots in our search for off-the-beaten path waves. We’ve steered the boat near big crashing waves and navigated through channels with intense standing waves. Regardless of that experience, upon seeing Haraiki’s pass I was very intimidated!

Overhead waves were breaking on either side of the pass. The channel itself was very hard to identify, because it is only 12-15ft deep. Unlike most atoll reef passes where a deep channel of 40-90 ft is carved by the large forces of water currents, Haraiki is a tiny atoll of only 1nm across, so the currents are minimal. The result is that the waves were shifting and breaking irregularly. Disconcertingly, the swells were standing up in the middle of the channel, threatening to break, and wavelets would occasionally cap over in the rough water. We were considering giving up.

From afar in the lumpy seas, we watched the waves on the pass for 25 minutes. Eventually we gained confidence in the timing of the swell and pattern of breaking waves. We planned the approach at a diagonal angle to the pass, starting close to the western side and moving to mid channel.

Then we went for it…

Despite the warnings, Gary was happy to ride the bucking bronco on the bow. He and Ethan are old time surfers and were getting a perverse joy from us surfing Aldebaran down the waves in the reef pass.

Our hearts were pounding as waves crashed on the reef next to us, and a large swell rose behind us. Would it break on us? Would Aldebaran’s design as a forty-foot surfboard now be tested? I steered to starboard away from the peak of the lump approaching us, and Aldebaran began to surf down the swell, picking up speed from 6 to 8 to 10 knots. The wave was breaking 150ft away, which is just a stone’s throw! Fortunately, where we were, it didn’t get steep and break; the wave rolled under us. We had timed the sets well and entered into the lagoon. What a relief!

But there was no time to relax. We were immediately confronted with the minefield of coral bommies littering the lagoon, which we now had to navigate around.

GRAPHIC OF OUR ENTRANCE INTO HARAIKI:

What we were saying as we entered Haraiki. This aerial photo was taken with our Honey Bee (mavic drone), which we flew once we were inside and safely anchored.

From the satellite imagery (see top photo of this post) we had an idea that the western side of the channel was probably deeper. Our friends who had entered Haraiki confirmed this is the way they went. Yet, even in perfect visibility and light wind, this channel would be very stressful on a sailboat. The maze-like “channel” hovers around 12ft deep, blanketed by a carpet of  stunning coral reefs; this blanket of coral makes it very difficult to evaluate depth from a sailboat, and discern whether that “darker patch” could be a pinnacle of rock sticking straight up.

The cloudy conditions also did not help with the visibility. We were struggling to see more than 1 boat length ahead, even from Sabrina’s vantage point on the bow. On the positive side, the wind was a gentle 6-8kts, which allowed us to crawl along very slowly, while retaining steering control of the boat. The lightly ebbing tide also helped me keep steerage (if the tide were entering, it would push us with more speed toward hazards).

NAVIGATION NOTE: Counter-intuitively, the light breeze we had is much better than no breeze. If the wind is totally calm (close to zero) it creates a mirror-like surface on the water, and it’s nearly impossible to see hazards below. In fact, when we are navigating across unsurveyed lagoons, it is much easier to see coral bommies and underwater hazards when the wind is strong, as the wavelets and color contrast become more evident. Dead calm conditions can spell disaster and the common understanding is that it’s best to stop the boat and wait for the wind to return.

 

The carpet of coral just a few feet under the boat. 10 feet of water over sand is one thing; 10 feet of water over hard coral sprouting in spires every which way, is a very different thing!

Sabrina was at the bow giving directions while I was at the cockpit steering the boat. We communicated non-stop on the VHF, while Gary and Ethan chimed in from their lookout positions on the amas. I reported every turn of the wheel, every change in throttle. Sabrina reported every hazard the crew saw from deck. We were a well-greased machine; like a basketball player in “the zone”, 100% focused for about ten minutes.

There were several near-misses. A few times, the coral was 1ft deep just 6 feet from the outside edge of the boat. We did our best to keep the main hull, which is 4ft deep, in a deeper area, while the amas, which are only 1/2 ft deep, were not as big a concern for us.  Given everything, we are still not exactly sure how we didn’t run into anything!

Aerial view of Haraiki: Aldebaran anchored, sheltered by the motu from the east wind, and a long finger of coral reef sheltered us from the north. The reef pass is seen in the distance. The anchorage is spectacular.

We were ecstatic and relieved to arrive inside the lagoon, past all the minefield of coral. And mentally exhausted… as shown by Ethan in the picture below…

Ethan chilling in a pool of water during our beach exploration shortly after arrival. Unwinding as tiny fish gently pecked at his face like a fancy day spa. Lets just say he needed it after the stress of our arrival!

Reflections from Apataki

From just 5 miles away, we could see only a string of coconut trees above the horizon, stretching across the open ocean.  That was it. 

“Wow, these atolls are so fragile” is the first thought that comes to mind, seeing such tiny specks of low-lying land in the middle of the sea.

House on the lagoon edge in Apataki

Climate scientists have warned us that low-lying atolls like Apataki (and the entire Tuamotos archipelago ) are at risk. This is due to the slow infiltration of sea water rise into the fresh water aquifer, making it very hard to grow crops (as reported in Kiribati). Or, by storm surge that destroys the land, either due to higher than normal tides (as seen in the East Coast of US) or by tropical cyclones (such as the terrible devastation this year in the Caribbean).

Johnny, Michael, and Alex admire the crystalline water next to Apataki’s village

Although cyclones are relatively rare in Tuamotos, they can still occur, especially during El Niño events. As we visit these atolls, we are impressed by how vulnerable they are. Therefore it comes as a shock to get news of catastrophic weather events occurring back home in California in the form of huge drought-driven wildfires. One of the epicenters of the wildfire battle is in Ventura, which we call the “birthplace” of Aldebaran. Read our last post about our connection to Ventura.

We met SV Kaimana of Scott and Melissa in Apataki. They are also originally from San Diego, although they now live in Oahu (when they’re not sailing their catamaran!)

We are saddened and humbled by the losses of many friends and community members back home. In day-to-day life in California, characterized by idyllic weather and a happy-go-lucky culture, it is easy to forget that the weather can turn so destructive. 

As we visit atolls like Apataki, that live with the constant reality of disaster, we see there are some key lessons to dealing with catastrophic weather… 1. preparing for the bad scenarios  2. preparing for the very worst scenario 3. enjoying the present moment fully, and not being attached to material possessions.

We hope to learn from the wisdom of these atolls, so we may be prepared back home and resilient in the future…

A local legend.

The local mode of transport.

Snapped mooring!!

The common sense rule is, “don’t use moorings… unless locals say it is good.” After this fateful night, we’ve changed it to — “don’t trust anyone’s opinion, always dive down to inspect the mooring; and never fail to run a secondary line!”

Here’s what happened. Locals had told us that our anchor spot outside the pass in Faaite was tenuous – if the wind changed to the north, it could swing the boat into the shallow reef. They were adamant: “The mooring in the pass is more safe! Even our cargo boat uses it!”

We weren’t concerned, but we decided to give their mooring a shot for a few hours in our last afternoon in Faaite… for a change of scenery.

We motored up to the mooring and were instantly sketched out. The current was flowing out of the pass like a fast river at 3.5 knots. We attached our line to their mooring loop. Normally we would have run a secondary line but nobody was very keen to get in the ripping current… you get it?! Ripping current?

Aldebaran jackknifed dramatically from the unusual forces. We debated the situation and decided I would stay on board while crew did their final chores in town. “At least the view is good,” I grumbled, and access was easy for the dinghy.

Well, one thing led to another and we decided to spend the night. Sabrina was not pleased with this and we should have listened to her intuition. But the argument was that even if the mooring failed, the strong current would simply sweep us out to sea. Not very comforting, ultimately, so we set various anchor drag and depth alarms to advise us of any changes in our location.

At 1am, the alarms went off!! Beep beep beep!!!

Michael was sleeping in the cockpit bunk and woke us up quickly, and we jumped to action, as Aldebaran drifted freely through the pitch black pass, with waves on either side! A very scary moment !!

In the first 10 seconds, it was disorienting to figure out where we were, with the confusing town lights, and our sleepy eyes. I was about to drop the anchor in the 60ft water to give us a moment; but by then Sabrina had turned on the engine and we had developed a sense that the current and wind were indeed just sending us harmlessly towards the open ocean — as we had hoped.

(The current in Faaite’s pass is nearly always outgoing, with only rare times calm or incoming; and the predominant trade wind also blows out to sea.)

We motored outside the pass and re-anchored in the dark at our old location. Next, we inspected the line still attached to our bow. The mooring loop was intact, but its line had snapped right through the middle due to the heavy load of Aldebaran in pulsating current.

This failure came as quite a surprise: usually lines break at chafe points or knots, not in their mid section. This was indeed a “cheap lesson” — always attach the secondary line further down, ideally to a solid shackle. If the current is too strong to do so, well, consider moving to another place. 😉

We felt fortunate to escape unscathed from that terrible situation, which could have resulted in a shipwreck. Shaken up, we tried to get some sleep before departing the next day, heading north to the atoll of Apataki.

The Great Dog-Tooth Tuna Hunt

 

 Johnny and Alex were sunburnt, sweaty, and tired of the outboard’s whine; and still no fish to show for the long day’s efforts of trolling the pass for tuna. They were getting a little… “fish-trated”. 

Solution: Ask the locals! 

Folks in the village of Faaite told us to meet Bruno. Turns out he is a champion spearfisherman from Tahiti who moved here two years ago. On their first outing, Bruno took the fellas to coral bommies inside the lagoon. Michael and Ben speared several beautiful groupers, without much problem from the blacktip sharks patrolling the area. 


 

Chef Boy MC hunting for grouper in the lagoon.

 

The real prize, however, was in the pass: Bruno took them to his favorite spot to hunt for the powerful dog-tooth tuna. The tide was perfect and they got lucky: there were no dangerous gray reef sharks (raira), and big tuna were spotted; although the fish were coy and kept their distance at first. 

 

Underwater perspective of the anchored dinghy and the crew taking turns spearfishing. In the tuamotos the rule is to spearfish with a buddy always to help disable the fish with a second shot (if its big) and to help haul in the float line that’s attached to the speargun. The spearfisherman moves away from the wounded fish in case sharks come to chase it down.

 

Then suddenly Alex saw a big tuna split from the school and circle back. He dove down and was incredulous: the tuna had approached and turned sideways, as if “presenting” itself for the hunter. Alex took a long shot… it hit the target!! Using his experience, Bruno had seen the situation evolve and was diving close behind Alex; within a few seconds he took a secondary shot to make sure the fish was quickly killed. This was important because the wounded fish would otherwise run and fight, attracting sharks from far and wide. 

The two spear guns tips,

now firmly embedded in the tuna 30 feet deep, were attached to the dinghy, which was anchored in the pass. Ben jumped aboard and hauled up on the lines with Johnny’s help, getting tangled in the chaos, but nevertheless with the team’s efforts the fish was landed within 25 seconds. Huge success!!!  

 

a solid fish!! Ben, Johnny, Alex, and Michael celebrate putting food on the table

 

“You got very lucky, no sharks!” said Bruno.  Yes, we got lucky… did I mention Bruno was a restaurant chef and filleted the fish in record time, with sashimi being cut before sunset? 

Now we dined with Bruno, who had never visited a cruising sailboat, or taken foreigners spearfishing for that matter… for the next few days we ate like kings and queens on sushi, grilled fish, seared tuna salads, and fish cakes for days… 


 

Bruno and Alex with the prize dog-tooth tuna

 

Thanks to Bruno for helping to re-stock our fridge and breaking our dry spell!!

 

Faaite’s Beautiful Reef

Sometimes there are hidden jewels in no-name places.. We sailed with the fellas back to Faaite, which is outside the tourist circuit, only 12nm across the channel from famous Fakarava, an atoll that attracts divers from all over the world.

We enjoyed gorgeous snorkeling in the shallows outside Faaite, with no one around. Sometimes it is lovely to have a spot to yourself even if it isn’t ” the ultimate ” destination.. it becomes ours when we explore and find something special on our own.

How to swim with sharks in French Polynesia

We recently had a debrief with our crew about swimming with sharks, and thought we’d share with you. Here’s what we have learned so far during our trip…

BLACK TIP AND WHITE TIP REEF SHARKS
These sharks are easy to identify and are pretty much harmless; most of the time they are scared of people. They are typically 4-5ft with some individuals getting bigger (although some photos trick you into thinking they are larger!)

Their mouths are small and they are unable to bite things much larger than a fish. They are extremely cautious; they’ll circle a fish head several times and poke it before attempting to bite it. If you get them into a frenzy (lots of bloody fish attracting lots of fish and sharks) then they get more jumpy, but they are still pretty wary. This is generally true of all sharks because as predators they can’t afford to get injured — catching food is tough when wounded, and they might starve.

Incidents of black tips and white tips injuring humans seem to be extremely rare. One young diver in Fakarava got too close to frenzied sharks while diving at night (which happens to be their feeding time) and a shark knocked his regulator, yanked it out of his mouth, requiring several stitches to the young diver’s lip.

A more serious incident occurred with our local friend when he was nine years old; he was splashing around in poor visibility water and a black tip bit his butt! His gluteous maximus required several stitches. From what I can tell, this is characteristic of the vast majority of shark attacks on humans: in poor visibility, the shark bites a person by mistake thinking they are a fish (or seal, in the case of great whites). They realize their mistake and most often don’t bite again.

GRAY REEF SHARKS
They are much more hefty and bold than the black & white tip sharks, typically around 6-7 ft. Everyone claims they are safe to swim with. However, they can sometimes be uncomfortably “curious”, investigating who you are. In that scenario the best way to persuade sharks to move away from you is to face them directly; you become much larger, and are not exhibiting prey behavior, so they distance themselves. Making eye contact is also an effective way to shoo them away; like dogs, sharks are intimidated by your gaze.

The main instance in which gray reef sharks are in fact dangerous is during spearfishing. If you shoot a fish the shark will happily try to grab it regardless if the fish is on the spear or in your hands. So the protocol for spearfishing with sharks is to have a buddy who can pull up your float line with spear gun and wounded fish as fast as possible; and the spearfisher stays away. If solo, people take care to ensure there are no sharks in the vicinity and they try to get the fish out of the water as soon as possible. The Tahitian name for this shark is “Raira”, and we often heard the refrain from our friend Bruno in Faaite, who took our crew spearfishing: be careful with the Raira when you catch a fish!

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.

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.

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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