We have a client here now who chartered a sailboat to explore the northern Tuamotu islands of Rangiroa and Tikehau. The boat had to be delivered from Raiatea in the Leeward Society Islands to Rangiroa, so I went along to help out for the crossing. The following are my notes from the two-day sail.
Sailed out of the pass at Raiatea at about 2pm. Distance passes very slow at sea. On land you are used to everything whizzing past. Even in the desert landmarks approach at a reasonable rate. But at sea you can see so far, and in a sailboat you are going so slow, that distances crawl along. The trick is to occupy yourself, go on with your day and night, and you will get there. Seemed like Huahine was there in front of us forever but by nightfall we were passed her. The sunset was predictably spectacular with the sun going down directly behind Bora Bora. I was hoping for a green flash, but the sun hit the island before it hit the horizon. This of course still made for a pretty spectacular sunset.
I snoozed a bit in the early evening and then did my watch from 9 to 11. Standing watch was great. There was a bright half-moon out that lit up the flotillas of clouds going by, and the reflections off the water made it the whole seascape visible. Massive mushroom-shaped squalls passed on either side, sweeping moist air up, wringing it out, and dumping the water back into the sea with torrential rains.
The Southern Cross was up, and in the north the Big Dipper pointed to where the north star was below the horizon. I imagined trying to navigate my way by what I could see in the sky, and even with my limited knowledge of the stars I think I could hit the northern Tuamotu. I’m glad to have a GPS though since I would spend every waking hour fretting and questioning myself until I got there.
Crashed out right away after my watch and slept really well despite being jolted awake a few times by waves. Then up at 4:30 to take the 5-7 watch, the sweetest one since this is the sunrise watch. The moon was gone now but the brilliant firmament of stars glowed over-head, and the faintest hint of dawn was creeping over the eastern horizon. I settled in, punched in my favorite playlist, hit shuffle and… nothing. Damn, I wanted some music. Then… ahh, I didn’t hear anything because it was the gentle beginning of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd – very nice (I can tell).
A ½ hour later we sailed right into an armada of squalls. Wind speed went up to 30 knots, rain pelted down in big cool drops, I was loving it. It was getting light enough now to see everything coming, but sometimes there is just no missing these curtains of wind and rain. Since you can’t see through them, it seems that you are going into a huge storm, but in fact they are usually not very big – maybe one square kilometer on average – so you sail through them and out the other side fairly quickly, even at 5 knots. Just as we made it through one squall the sun rose behind another one approaching from due east – a big red fuzzy disk. And then simultaneously I had sunrise on one side and a complete double rainbow on the other. Not a bad way to start the day.
The day passes easily with a bit of snoozing, light work on the computer (cleaning up desktop), a movie, gazing at the sea, trying to stay out of the sun, etc. No birds to be seen so the fishing pole got no use.
I drew the same times for night watch. The early evening was uneventful except for a couple of birds that followed us for a while. I couldn’t quite nail down what they were, but my best guess is brown noddy.
Took over the early morning watch at 4:30am. The GPS chart showed that we had entered the channel between Rangiroa and Tikehau and were sliding up the west coast of Rangiroa. The lighthouse at the NW corner of the island was clearly visible off the port bow. By the chart it looked like we were within a couple of kilometers of the shore and I strained to make out anything, but of course it was too dark. Venus was shining bright in the east and with the moon gone the Milky Way was brilliant. This is a situation that I have always wanted to experience – sailing at night just off the coast in the “Dangerous Archipelago”. I decided not to tempt fate so I dialed in Jimmy Buffett and hit play.
Our course is set by the GPS and followed by the autopilot, and I have to correct myself in thinking that I could have made this trip using traditional navigation. Sure I probably could have got myself into the Tuamotu Archipelago, but then what. At night the first thing you would see of these islands are the waves breaking on the reef, and then it would be too late. Here you have to use the swells in all their complexity in order to tell where the islands are, how close to shore you are, and which way to steer in order not to end up surfing onto a reef. Or you just have to drop the sails until dawn.
I was enjoying all this immensely so I decided to try to take a picture of myself to capture the moment. I set the camera on the table on the stern deck and hit the timer. I had to run back to the helm with the deck pitching, and on the way a vision flashed in my brain of me tripping on a line and disappearing off the stern – with a picture of my rear end as the only witness to my departure.
We edge closer to the NW corner of the island as dawn breaks and I can see the massive coral boulders left there by a cyclone. I have climbed over and under those boulders and they are the size of cars and small houses. The local word is that they were tossed up there by the tsunami created by the 1906 SF earthquake, but I don’t think that is right. Having recently had a lot of both first hand and online experience with tsunamis, this is not the effect they would have on an atoll shore. A big cyclone on the other hand can generate 30 foot waves that can easily rip up a reef front and toss chunks of it onto the flat. There are also massive reef boulders on the NW shore of Anaa that are attributed to a cyclone that happened in 1904. My guess is that we are talking about the same thing for Rangiroa.
We sail off-shore to the north a bit before tacking back towards the island, headed for the pass at Avatoru. There are a few birds out so I troll all the way in, but nothing bites. As we arrive the massive lagoon of Rangiroa is exhaling, and we have to fight a very strong current to make headway through the pass.
Gradually we make it inside and turn the corner, and we have arrived after about 500 kilometers of sailing. Rangiroa is the second largest atoll in the world and the lagoon is so big you can’t see across it. But it is calm here, and the village is awake and bustling, and after we dock I meet my friend Ugo and we set off to do a bit of last minute shopping and then pick up our guests.
See our website for information on adventures in the Tuamotu Archipelago.