Farewell, Reao

The winds were dwindling in the forecast. We were enjoying our visit to Reao Atoll immensely, but if we were to sail the remaining 450 nautical miles to Marquesas, we had to make a move.

After touring us around all day, Marguerite then made a wonderful meal, also inviting the driver and his two companions. Watching the play of light over the lagoon in front of their patio, we felt an overwhelming gratitude at being treated as “insta-family” on this atoll. To add to boot, the driver and his friends prepared two boxes of coconuts and kava (like lychee) for us to take on the journey. What a gift!

Our visit had been too brief – with heavy hearts we bid farewells to our new friends. The goodbyes lingered; and suddenly dusk was upon us. Darkness was descending, and the whole village seemed to rally to ensure our safe departure.

Due to lack of visibility, the skiff captain took us back to Aldebaran in two trips. The maneuver was hair-raising; shining a spotlight ahead, he timed the sets of waves and expertly navigated the tiny reef keyhole to reach the deeper water. Meanwhile, two dozen people milled about the wharf, illuminated by moonlight, taking last minute photos with the rare visitors.

We set sail at 8pm going north with 12 knots of wind from the east. Behind us, Reao’s lights looked small in the vast black horizon. It reminded me of our departure from another tiny place: Pitcairn Island.

I felt that same terrible bitter sweetness. Goodbye, my friends, living in an isolated dot of ocean.

Here in Reao, more than anywhere, we felt extremely appreciated for simply coming to visit. In the “normal” world, it is rare to feel such deep gratitude for our mere presence and companionship – with no expectation of length of time, or exchange.

Besides the many surprises in this atoll – the sunken seaplane, harvesting clams (and octopus), the stages of copra, and the fabulous water – what we learned most from Reao was gratitude. There is no greater gift than deeply appreciating each other’s company, moment-by-moment.

Photo: Walking the placid lagoon in Reao… as they say in Tahitian, ‘Maururu’! Thank you!

Snorkeling the Airplane Wreck

It’s not every day that we come across an underwater plane wreck… much less one that we can snorkel around without any SCUBA. A truly unique experience in this remote Tuamotos atoll!

Photo: Captain K swims down to check out the plane’s cockpit. The plane has been in this watery grave in Reao Atoll since 1995. Photo by Spencer.

Fish in the Plane Wreck

By Spencer. We snorkeled out to the shallow crash site just a hundred yards from shore and began exploring. Beadle and I had weights and were able to dive down and under the wings without SCUBA (A rarity for wrecks) and I even did a swim thru the fuselage! The sediment in the water gave the wreck that eerie feeling that all wrecks have; however, as the sun shone through the clouds, the colors of the algae came to life. The engines were hairy with feathers of barnacles protruding from all over. Large clams had fixed themselves to the wreck, their lips shimmering beautiful greens, yellows, and blues.

One surprise: we dove down and peaked inside the wings, suddenly discovering hundreds of colorful tropical fish, which contrasted sharply with the grey metal carcass of their home (see photo at bottom). Inside the plane’s cockpit, springs jutted out from the frames of seats long decomposed. The port wing was the deepest of the wreck sitting in about 25’ of water; and under it large stripped yellow fish chased small red, white and blue fish back and forth. They occasionally misjudged their speed and hit the silty bottom causing a plume of dust to rise from the impact.

The placid nature of the lagoon has preserved the wreck very well and we were ecstatic when we swam back to shore. Capitan even jumped in the air squealing with delight when we got back to the truck. This was a superb and unusual way to break up the passage to Fatu Hiva.

There are more planes in the ocean, than ships in the sky

By Spencer.

A plunge into the lagoon’s cerulean waters revealed a wonderland of clams, sea cucumbers, and a plethora of fish who have made a home in the wreckage of an aircraft now resting on the bottom. This was the wreck of the Catalina, a sea plane that in times past was an atoll hopper bringing provisions, mail and people to and fro the remote atolls of the area.

In 1995 the Catalina landed as it had many times before; however, a chop in the sea and a gust in the wind that fateful day dipped the wing into the lagoon where the water was waiting to greet it for all eternity. The watery grave the plane sits in is on the edge of a shelf where the depth is only 5 meters and the broken starboard wing of the craft sticks above the water like a headstone.


Tour of Reao: Spirits and Clams

Our diesel Toyota pickup truck rumbled down the dirt road towards our first stop: a “marae”, the generic name for ceremonial sites used by the ancient Polynesians. All that’s left of the site are vertical stone slabs resting on horizontal stone walls. “We don’t come here much,” explained the driver. “We go to Church on Sunday.” The ancient spirits stay at rest in the marae.

Making our way towards the lagoon, we met a large, jovial lady and her companion sitting on upturned buckets on the water’s edge. They were cleaning hundreds of clams, removing their inside meat, which they freeze and send to Papeete.

“Look at this one with bright blue lips,” the lady motioned to us. “These are valuable. We ship them alive.”

Despite the lady’s swollen limbs from diabetes and filariasis (which causes elephantitis, or swelling of the limbs) she was positive and hard-working, and we enjoyed her company very much.

Clams are the main economic product from the waters of the lagoon. Marguerite pointed to the scattered buoys anchored in the blue water. The buoys are essentially a clam farm, which are harvested every few months.

Nevertheless, clams are minor as exports, compared to the massive copra agriculture, which covers nearly every plot of land on the atoll. A copra plantation was our next stop.

Sketchy anchorage, lovely people

It was 8am, the morning after our arrival in Reao. We were making a gameplan for the day.

“They say there’s a sunken sea plane in 10 feet of water in the lagoon,” Sabrina said over the VHF radio. “That could be amazing!”

“Whoa… okay, that’s worth the risk. I’ll pack snorkel gear for everyone in the big red bag,” I said. I had woken up alone on Aldebaran, where I had been on anchor watch. I mulled over the prospect of leaving our mothership at anchor for the day…

The anchorage was precarious. Although we dropped the hook in 100 feet of water, and it was still holding, the boat would swing around to anything from a depth of 70 feet (somewhat close to dry reef) to 250 feet (further offshore). It was quite steep – and we didn’t want her running aground, or getting blown out to sea! Luckily, today’s forecast was for lighter NE winds. A mental compromise was made: I’d go enjoy the day with the crew, and keep an eye on the wind.

Our rendezvous was at Gaeton and Marguerite’s house. After hosting the crew for an impromptu dinner last night, now they had hired a car and driver to show us around today. “It’s our treat,” said Gaeton.

Wow, what generosity!! we thought.

Gaeton went to work at the medical clinic. The Green Coco crew piled into a diesel Toyota pickup truck, along with Marguerite, who came as our guide; plus the driver; and two other guys, who seemed to be “going along for the ride”. We drove down the atoll’s thin strip of land.

Photo: View of Gaeton and Marguerite’s home, with the lagoon waters in front.

Arriving in Reao, final part trois

By Sabrina.

The town in Reao is on the north-western corner of the island. It is home to 350 inhabitants. The streets are lined with a continuous stone railing, white and fiddled, which stretches across town. It gives the place an oddly organized feel, in contrast with the corrugated metal houses and somewhat ramshackle appearance.

“Perhaps we should go back to the boat before it is pitch black?” I suggested to Spencer and Deena. “Let’s go find Pierre to tell him we are leaving.” The island has no restaurants nor hotels. As we rounded the bend, back to the main road, a car appeared and we were motioned to get in. Okay…

“On va ou?” I asked the driver, curious where he was taking us. He explained we were going to Gaeton’s house. We had met Gaeton earlier at the pier with his 10yr old son, Vahiria; they had driven their scooter to the breakwater to welcome us to Reao. Gaeton is a nurse by trade and now runs the town’s clinic. He moved here from France 14 years ago when he fell in love with Margerite during a visit to the island by cargo ship.

“Are they expecting us?” I asked our driver, suddenly feeling uncomfortable about ‘just showing up’ at this hour of the evening, but there was no turning back.

The house was on the far northern edge of the lagoon, about a 5 minute drive from town. Gaeton’s wife, Margerite, was standing outside awaiting our arrival! She welcomed us warmly into her charming coral-brick home, “La Maison du Lagon”.

The porch lights illuminated the chiseled white coral bricks, accented by natural wood. Their house was the nicest thing we had seen since the fancy hotels of Galapagos. It had always been Gaeton’s dream to build a tropical colonial house using natural materials. It took them 9 months to build the house themselves. Each brick of coral was hand chiseled and arranged with aesthetic precision. The inside of the house was just as exquisite. Margerite’s creations of shell and coral sculptures, necklaces, and chandeliers were artistically strewn all over the walls among weavings of pandanus and palm leaves. It felt like we had discovered a secret, magical place.

They made us feel like part of the family. They insisted that we should make ourselves feel at home and take showers (despite their very limited water supply, which all comes from rain). We were given clothes to wear as we were not prepared for an overnighter! It was a special evening for us all. We enjoyed a pre-dinner aperitif (a drink before dinner in honor of a special event), shared stories, and ate a delicious meal of crepes. Outside, the trade winds rustled the coconut trees, framing the gigantic blue lagoon just outside their porch. We wondered what was in store for us on this strange island on the following day.

Arriving in Reao, part deux

By Sabrina.

Our welcome party in Reao took us in a car to the other breakwater. A tractor towing an aluminum boat followed us through the streets, along with a growing entourage.

Reao doesn’t receive many visitors due to their remoteness and poor anchorage. They told us we are the first sailboat to arrive this year. The excitement on shore was palpable. More people showed up at the Southern Breakwater to introduce themselves to us; it felt like we were meeting the entire town. Their aluminum skiff was lowered into the water then zoomed out towards Aldebaran, through a “keyhole” in the reef. The keyhole looked like a channel from our vantage point, but waves also broke across it every few minutes.

After returning from Aldebaran, the skipper timed the sets and expertly maneuvered through the narrow 20 foot channel. It returned with only Deena in tow.

“Were you able to anchor?” I radioed to Kristian.

“Yup, I put out the delta anchor in 100 feet of water,” Kristian said. Our 33lb delta anchor is half the weight of our primary 66lb Bruce anchor, with a long run of line (instead of all-chain) which makes it better for deeper anchorages. We usually anchor in 20 to 50 feet, so this was a lot to ask for our hook. Kristian continued: “It seems to be holding well, but it’s precarious. I’ll stay on the boat overnight – you guys explore!”

By now the sun was starting to set. After many hearty introductions – and some discussion about whether Pierre gave us “permission” to stay on the island, we were then encouraged to go… walk.

Ahhh… walk where? I was also unclear what ‘staying on the island’ meant. Was this permission to walk around? Or permission to stay with someone?

Keeping in mind the setting sun, and the potentially long paddle back to Aldebaran, we went walking. A growing group of kids followed paces behind us. I tried to ask our entourage where we should go, but they were bashful and shrugged their shoulders as if they didn’t know. “What about your lagoon? Can we go visit that?” They nodded yes and pointed to a road ahead.


Arriving in Reao, part 1

By Sabrina.
“They put us in the back of a pickup truck. I have no idea what’s happening or where they are taking us. Maybe someone’s house for dinner. Do you copy?” I said over the portable VHF radio, awaiting Kristian’s response. He had stayed on the boat, at anchor just off Reao atoll.

What started as bizarre and confusing, ended as a truly memorable 24 hours. Let’s back up a bit:

We had arrived in the 12 mile long atoll of Reao at 3:30pm. Like all the other atolls in Tuamotos, Reao is an oblong shaped ring of land which surrounds a large lagoon. Without a pass into the lagoon, nor any good anchorages, we were at a loss of what to do. Everywhere around the island plummeted to great depths of 300 to 500 ft, which is impossible to anchor.

With the binoculars, we could see people gathering by the breakwater, surrounded by small breaking waves over dry reef. With the boat adrift in neutral, Spencer and I shoved our essentials in a dry bag (radio, wallet, water, and long sleeve in case of bugs), lowered the Stand Up Paddle boards into the water, and paddled ourselves in. The clock was ticking as we only had a couple hours before dark to determine if we could safely anchor and visit.

The surge on shore was strong, and we nearly got swept off the cement steps that climbed up the side of the breakwater. The helpful locals assisted us by grabbing our boards and raising them to their makeshift cement wharf.

The crowd bustled around us. The chief introduced himself first. His name was so long, I was at a loss to even try and attempt to repeat it! He then said in French, “You can call me Pierre.” (Perfect, that’s my brother’s name!). The chief was a short, stout man, who stood about four and a half feet tall and carried a stoic expression.

“Welcome to Reao” he said, eyeing us with his head crooked. “How many days do you want to stay here?” His expression was stern with his eyes half open.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We would love to come visit for a day or two, but we need to make sure we can safely anchor. Is there a spot we can move the boat that is less deep? Otherwise, we will have to take off. We came from Gambier and are making our way to Marquesas.”

Pierre directed me to another breakwater with a launch ramp for small boats, near where ships typically anchor. I radioed the information to Kristian.


Map of Reao Atoll

The Tuamoto atolls are very bizarre. From the air, they are simply a ring of sand and coconut trees around a huge lagoon. There are more than 30 such atolls.

They are formed by old volcanos which sunk under their own weight, after geological uplifting was over. During that process, the coral reef developed around the crater. Normally, the volcanic island would simply sink into the ocean (as many old craters are sinking in Galapagos). What prevents this total disappearance is the prolific coral reef that keeps growing and feeding land into the island. Since it is purely coral substrate, there is no sediment (ie mud), hence the water is extraordinarily clear.

Reao’s lagoon is some 9 miles long, but there is no pass that allows boats to enter inside the lagoon. From the satellite imagery, we could see the village on the north-west corner of the atoll, with what looks to be a dinghy landing. That is what we were aiming for, as we had zero other information about this atoll.