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The Tuamotus

May 2002

We have definitely arrived in Tropical Paradise. The Marquesas were volcanically dramatic and spectacular, but the Tuamotus are laid-back blue lagoons. These are coral atolls, ancient volcanoes where the gradually-sinking cone has been surmounted by coral reefs. The cone is no longer in evidence, just lovely blue lagoons. Imagne a 30 by 15 mile salt-water lake, about 100 feet deep, surrounded by a string of narrow islands the Polynesians call motus.

There is usually just one pass into each atoll, with strong tidal currents that reverse four times a day. This means timing our arrival for slack tide to go through the pass. If you consider that we must also leave the previous atoll at slack tide and at a time when the sun is overhead for good visibility, sail a hundred or so miles to the next island and arrive at the next slack tide, the navigator has his work cut out for him. We were quite worried about getting through our first pass, since there is always a current running and sometimes waves. So far the passes have been clearly marked and there are lots of other cruisers willing to offer assistance over the radio.

The water in the Tuamotus is azure blue over white sand and coral heads, unlike the black volcanic sand of the Marquesas. We prefer the white stuff. The snorkeling and diving are superb, if you can get past the fact that there are always sharks around. Jan can, I can’t. In Makemo, the water was so clear and shallow under the boat that we could clearly see our own anchor and chain. We also had our own personal coral heads under the boat with lots of fish. The water is ankle deep at low tide along the edge of the ocean reef, so there is tide pool exploring and fish and lobster catching to be done.


Getting to our first Tuamotu atoll wasn’t the easiest part, as we had to sail more than 500 miles from Nuku Hiva to Makemo. This turned out to be a combination of boring and irritating motoring for two days, followed by gusty winds and confused seas on the beam for the final day. We got banged around a bit and it wasn’t very comfortable sometimes, but the main problem was going slow enough when the wind blew, as Raven likes to move along smartly and hates to be slowed down. We had to reef the main and roll up the jib to get her down to five knots, and still we arrived at the Makemo pass too early. We hove to (to “heave to” means to set the sails so that the boat just drifts slowly, quietly, and safely downwind) for a couple of hours and went through our first Tuamotu pass with three knots of current against us and no problems at all.

At Makemo, the only family living at the east end of the lagoon adopted us and the other cruisers nearby. The first night we – 15 cruisers from 7 boats anchored there – hosted Jean-Marie, Emilianne and their three little kids to a potluck dinner. Since we are all out of fresh food, there was lots of pasta salad, couscous, rice and beans, and brownies, etc. The family seemed pleased, although we’re not sure what they thought of all the “exotic” flavors like salsa, chili, curry, and chocolate pudding. They told us about their life on the motu making copra to sell, which family members own which parts of the motu, etc., etc. Three of the guys even spent a morning cutting brush and collecting coconuts with Jean-Marie. Hot, sweaty work, but the French government is subsidizing copra production these days to help people make a living on the outer islands. Apparently, that’s a lot cheaper than solving all the problems caused by people moving into Papeete in search of work.

Jean-Marie took several other cruisers out to fish at low tide by lying in tide pools on the coral reef and spearing the fish hiding under the rocks. This was slightly easier than the lobstering technique, which involved going out at low tide in the middle of the night after moonset with a Coleman gas lantern, walking along the reef for several miles and mesmerizing the lobsters with the light. Then they were easy to pick up. At least it was easy for Jean-Marie. He caught 25 lobsters while the three Americans caught two, all of which Jean-Marie pointed out to them! Maybe you just have to be born here.

After the Great Lobstering Expedition, Jean Marie and his wife prepared a Tuamotuan feast for all of us cruisers. They boiled the lobsters in a big pot over an open fire, steamed fish in a pit over hot coral rocks, and baked coconut bread made from the interior of the coconut when it has started to sprout. Remember, this was a very young couple with three children who were living in a corrugated tin shack working their family’s copra plantation. They had very little, but were willing to share the bounty of their atoll with us. We were able to give them some practical gifts like rope, a big bucket with a lid, some children’s clothes and toys, Ziploc bags (Emilianne loved those!), and adhesive to caulk their leaking motorboat.

While we were waiting for the party to begin, a huge squall came through the anchorage. There we all were, stuck on shore and watching our floating homes disappear from view into the 30-knot winds and rain while we stood helpless in a corrugated tin copra storage shack. The shack hadn’t been used in some time. The resident ants started swarming to get out of the wet, and we were covered in flies trying to stay dry too. It was one of the times when we had to think, “What the heck are we doing here?” But the squalls died down, the balmy breezes came back, none of the boats dragged anchor, and all was well.

Provisioning in remote places

Food shopping here is an Experience. We were warned that there was very little available in these islands, so most of us tried to provision in Mexico for three months. We all planned to stay in the islands that long before hitting the grand metropolis of Papeete in Tahiti. There is usually at least one store on each atoll, if it is inhabited (many are not). Weekly cargo ships bring basic supplies to all the atolls: sugar, flour, canned corned beef, peanut butter (!!!), beer, pop, and a few canned goods. Oh, and they always have Pringles in six flavors. There are virtually no fresh fruits or vegetables. Every once in awhile, an onion or a few potatoes show up, then we all have the guilts about whether to grab them up or to leave them for the locals.

The other day in Makemo we found a baggy of actual lettuce and gave in to the temptation to buy it, even though the price was $6.40 for a few leaves. At least it was fresh. I dole out each leaf, believe me, but it does taste good! In a later atoll, Fakarava, we were told that the store got new vegetables by plane on Monday after 3 p.m. So we sat outside waiting for the delivery from the airport of one small box each of lettuce, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers. Luckily we were there on time, because there was nothing left by 3:15! Now we are embarking on The Great Egg Search. They come by plane on Wednesday. Guess we will have to stand watch again.

Last Thursday was Movie Night aboard Raven. Ten of us were perched in the cockpit watching “When Harry Met Sally.” In the middle of the movie, Harry and Sally were having an intense conversation in a restaurant, and Susan of C’est la Vie spoke for all of us when she blurted out, “Heck with the sex talk, I want some of that salad they’re eating!” On the radio net one morning, after bemoaning their lack of success in finding fresh veggies, Tom and Lynn of Roxanne burst into a spontaneous verse of “Looking for Lettuce in All the Wrong Places”!


In Makemo, we also had our first Black Pearl Experience. These islands are known for their pearl farms and everyone had told us to buy them here at the source, not in Papeete, where the prices are astronomical. So we searched out Frederic in the village, who had a small pearl farming operation behind his house. His wife did all the delicate grafting of the nucleus into the live oyster, doing fifty per day. She explained all about the fascinating process while we watched, asked questions, and took photos.

Frederic harvests his pearls three times a year, and the pearls grow in the shells from 12-14 months. He usually harvests over 50,000 pearls a year! Yes, it’s a mind-boggling number, and this was from a smallish operation. Other atolls have huge commercial farms that ship everything directly to Tahiti. We are told that the production has gotten so large that the prices are dropping for the lower quality pearls, while prices for the top quality ones have held up.

All we know is that the next step in our visit was to have Frederic take us into his home. He put a cheap plastic briefcase on the kitchen table, spread out a cloth and poured out about 3,000 pearls. My friend, Susan of C’est la Vie, and I got to sort and sift to our hearts’ content. There were many different colors: gold, grey, black, green, blue, cream. And there were many different shapes and sizes – oval, ringed, round, keeshee (irregular natural pearls without nuclei), and some really strange, but beautiful “freaks.” Susan and I could have stayed there for weeks, but the husbands were getting nervous about the negotiating process to come. In the end, we counted up the pearls and Frederick came up with a price. There was no discount for quantity, no premium for quality, just one price for all and that was that. It was quite a bargain, considering, so we all left happy. Especially Susan and I!!

Next we went to visit Bekko, who carves pearls, bone, and sperm whale teeth. At first this seemed like a strange concept and a desecration of the pearls. When we actually saw the result, it was quite intriguing. Bekko is covered in Tahitian tattoos and carves similar Tahitian designs on each pearl with a dental drill. How he can see that fine work, we don’t know. He also carves very elaborate designs in sperm whale teeth, very much like scrimshaw, but in more elaborate bas relief. These were spectacular, but the prices he gets for them in Papeete are way beyond a mere mortal’s price range. Bekko wanted to trade one carved tooth for our night vision binoculars – these people are in remote islands, but unsophisticated they are not!

Village life

The people in the Tuamotus are very friendly, especially the children. When we arrived at the Makemo village anchorage, within minutes we were leading a troop of little boys who wanted to show us the sights. The dress code among the elementary school set, boys and girls, in all these islands seems to be underpants and nothing else. Saves on laundry, I guess! The slightly older kids wanted to try out their English so we were constantly saying “ Hello” and responding to “ How are you?” Jan and I surprised almost everybody, adults included, by speaking French. It is so nice to be able to communicate!


Now we are in an atoll called Fakarava (“Fah-kah-rah-vah”), second largest in the Tuamotus. We like the name so much that it has now become our swear word of choice when something goes wrong: “Fakarava!!!!!” We stopped in the southern end of the atoll, which has no village but a couple of rustic pensions (that’s French for small hotels that serve meals). If you really want a vacation away from it all, check out the web site for Manihi and Tila’s pension at www.fakarava.org. Three women aboard other boats worked on a new website for Manihi and Tila, and Jan took a lot of photos to illustrate it. Watch for the new English version in a few weeks.

As cruisers will do, we quickly organized a potluck on the beach with the folks from five other boats. Manihi offered to build us a bonfire. Actually he took several of the guys out to try to catch some fish to barbecue, but without luck. We’ve decided that fish don’t bite when it is a full moon, which it is. And is it spectacular when it comes up at night! Wow! - Silhouetted palm trees against a full moon with wavelets glistening in the foreground. We have tried several times to get it on film, but no luck so far with our digital camera. Speaking of which, we are really sorry that we haven’t been able to send photos with our web updates. We have some great ones, but no internet café from which to send them. Eventually we will get caught up. Stand by!

My friend Susan found out it was my birthday, so made all of the kids and me (Yes, I’m trying hard to forget I’m a year older!) balloon hats. She also made me a birthday cake decorated with palm trees, beach umbrellas and a hammock. It could be one of the best birthdays ever.

The water has been very calm for the last few days, so we pulled out the inflatable kayaks. This could be the perfect kayaking spot because the reefs are just below the surface in some areas. If you sit quietly you can see the fish just as well as you can while snorkeling. I thought I had finally found the perfect method for seeing the little fish without seeing the sharks – until this morning. I saw a shark fin in the distance and didn’t think too much about it, until I saw him coming right for me. I’m not sure who was more scared, him or me. When he was right under the bow of my kayak, he swerved away – and I paddled hard!

Another evening, Manihi and Tila hosted a barbecue for all of us. Their place has well-appointed thatched bungalows and would be a wonderful place to really get away from it all. Tila decorates the place is amazing woven palm fronds.

Now we are in the northern end of the same atoll, anchored off of the village of Rotoava. We finally succeeded in having a meal in a local pension. I won’t glamorize it by calling it a restaurant, but at least someone else cooked it. We had some delicious poisson cru (a raw fish salad), grilled fresh tuna, and apple tart for dessert.

The owner of same pension, Joachim, also has a pearl farm, so we did a bit more in the pearl acquisition mode. We learn more about the process each time. There were French guests at the pension, Papeete residents who said they only buy pearls in the Tuamotus because they are so expensive in Papeete. I love such reassurance for what seems totally decadent. Joachim told us all about the three-times-a-year pearl auctions in Tahiti, organized by the cooperative the farm owners all belong to. Must be amazing to see thousands of top quality pearls worth millions in one place at one time.

Diving the passes

Jan has been scuba diving every day with the dive shop based in this little town. An amazing number of people fly in just to dive the famous pass. Jan did two prep dives on the reef, which he enjoyed – lots and lots of big fish, bigger than on most of the reefs. It seems there’s such a concentration of nutrients in the swift water flowing through the passes that the coral is more abundant, the fish are larger, and there are lots more predators: barracuda, napoleon wrasses, moray eels, pelagic fish like tuna, and . . . sharks. Then he did two drift dives in the pass – that’s when you drift through on the incoming tidal current –at about 100 feet, seeing several schools of 5 to 7 foot sharks of all types. For some reason, he claims this was not scary, but he does admit to a certain frisson on occasion! Like when Serge, the French divemaster, released the air-filled buoy to the surface and a dozen large sharks shot up to investigate whether it was edible. Prudently, Jan and Serge waited until the sharks lost interest before they rose to the surface.

He also dove on the south pass, which is much smaller and closer, and the cruisers can do it without big support boats. Jan went out the other day with six other divers in two inflatable dinghies, and they just plopped themselves right into the pass and drifted in with the current. Not so many fish and sharks, but still magnificent.

Tomorrow morning we will raise the anchor and do an overnight passage to the Society Islands, making landfall on the southern coast of Tahiti. We will stay there for about a week until we hit La Grande Ville, Papeete.

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This page was last updated on 04/13/04.


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