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Tuamotu Archipelago 

Written by Cathy Siegismund
June 2001


We had to wait a few extra days in the Nuka Hiva for a favorable forecast for our 400-mile passage to the Tuamotus. The wind had almost completely died and we had heard on the nets that a number of boats were motoring or floating out there. After a few days, the winds filled in again and we were able to set sail.

    

French and French Polynesian Flags

The Tuamotu Archipelago, historically called the dangerous archipelago, is a group of over 70 low lying atolls that runs for several hundred miles in a northwest - southeast direction between the Marquesas and Society Islands and is another island group within French Polynesia. There are several commonly traveled routes through these islands. In the days before Radar and GPS, the atolls were perilous, but today with care the islands can be safely navigated, and offer a wonderful tropical paradise for those who visit.

When we left the Marquesas, we had decided to cross in the middle of the island chain as opposed to the most commonly traveled route to the north. We hadn't laid out a more specific route than that, as we were going to let the wind angle determine which atoll would be our first stop.

Tuamotu Archipelago

Our first three days at sea were very nice. We were happy with our new three hour watch schedule and we mostly had 15-20 knots of wind on the beam with only 1-2 foot seas. With such favorable conditions, we decided to head for Raroia, a small atoll with a tiny of village of only 50 people. Layla was currently there, and had been giving it rave reviews on the morning net, so we decided to join them. The last day of the passage the winds clocked around and we were forced to beat the last day to Raroia. It wasn't too bad, as the winds didn't go above 20 knots and more importantly, the seas remained very small.

The first view of an atoll is amazing. An atoll is basically a volcanic island that has sunk back into the sea, so all that remains is the surrounding coral reef. From the air, you can see the surrounding fringing reef at some places a mere surf line and at others a small island or motu and the interior lagoon which can be very small to over a hundred miles long.

Pacific atoll seen from the air

Approaching from the water the islands become visible to the eye at about 5 miles. It is incredible see what looks like patches of palm trees sprouting out of the ocean. These are extremely low relief islands, usually only a few feet above sea level.

Many of the larger atolls have passes, breaks in the fringing reef which allow ships to enter. The passes in the Tuamotus are largely well marked as many have weekly to monthly visits from the large supply ships. These passes can have strong currents, some up to 10 knots, which are affected by tides and sea conditions.

Our arrival at Raroia was near perfect timing for entering the pass. Drew had given us a description of the pass, but we were still nervous as the pass was not marked, although once in the pass the route to the town was well marked. The sun was high in the sky and slightly behind us - perfect conditions for spotting shallow spots and coral heads in the clear turquoise water - as we entered the pass. We motored through a short chop in the pass as we entered the lagoon. We, as many cruisers have described before, were amazed at the beauty of these islands. It really is what you imagine as a South Pacific paradise.

We motored down the inside of the atoll and anchored off the small town. Layla had left the day before for the other side of the atoll, so we were the only cruising boat anchored off the town. There were small pearl farming huts on the water and one other permanent French boat.

Felicity anchored off the town at Raroia in the clear lagoon water of the atoll

The wind had kicked up some, and we were tired from our passage, so we stayed on the boat the rest of the day. The next day, we put the dinghy in the water and headed off to explore the town.

View down the inside of the atoll from the wharf

Ken on the white coral beach of the town

Small pearl farming hut in the lagoon

In recent years, the Tuamotus have really begun to prosper with cultivation of black pearl farming. The extent of farming ranges from small family owned farms, to large Tahitian or Asian owned commercial operations.

Another pearl farming hut

View of Felicity, the boat farther off the beach

South Pacific Paradise

Raroia has a small village with about 50 residents. There is a small town hall and a mayor who checked us in to the island. There are no stores, but there is a small church and nice homes.

Village on Raroia

'Road' that crosses the motu from the village to the ocean side of the atoll

Stacks of coconut husks are found everywhere around the village

Although pearl farming has taken over as the key revenue generating industry in the Tuamotus, many islands still have copra production. Piles of coconut husks, we assumed are used as fuel for fires, are found stacked all around the island.

Small Raroia cemetery, the larger headstones decorated with mother of pearl

Shrine on Raroia

French Polynesia is very religious, and even the smallest islands will have shrines and churches

Raroia Church dating from 1873

The church plays an important part in the religious community, but with it's thick concrete walls, it is also the cyclone shelter for the island. The islands are so low that a cyclone would sweep completely over them, and likely flatten most of the homes.

Tamarac II arrived at Raroia a few days after we did, and Layla returned to the town side a day after that. The wind blew a consistent 15-20 knots in the anchorage which was not ideal, but we still enjoyed the beautiful clear water and beauty of the island. We went snorkeling on the nearby coral heads and had our first introduction to the common site of sharks. Almost every trip in the water included a sighting of sharks. Most of them were small black tips which do not bother you. In fact most of the sharks leave you alone, the only warnings we had were to be careful if you're spearfishing, and to watch out for the Lemon Sharks which can be aggressive.

I had my birthday on Raroia, and Drew and Vernita threw me a party and cooked us a great meal. Terry and Gayl joined us on Layla. It was definitely the coolest place I had ever spent a birthday.

We spent about 4 days in Raroia, after that the rolly anchorage had started to get to us and we decided to leave and head for Makemo. Makemo was about 80 miles away, so it would be an overnight passage for us. Sailing among the Tuamotus can be tricky, as you need to time the exit and entrance of the passes as close to slack water as possible. We left Raroia in the afternoon and had to fight our way a bit out of the pass. We had 15-25 knot winds on our overnight sail, and a few squalls. We were making too good of time with all the wind and were going to arrive at Makemo before dawn. We decided to heave to for about 6 hours so we could arrive at Makemo at slack water. It was the first time we had hove to in Felicity; after some experimenting we finally settled on full main and jib and the wheel tied over. The boat hove to fairly well, but continued to move at about 1.7 knots toward Makemo. We will need to continue to work with different sail configurations to heave to without sailing out of our slick so much.

We arrived at Makemo in the morning, and had an uneventful entrance to the pass, which was well marked with range markers. Makemo is a much larger atoll than Raroia and has an airstrip and a fairly large village with one small restaurant, a post office with an internet cafe, and several magasins. Rainsong had been enjoying the town for almost a week when we arrived. Jason and Tam showed us around the town.

The anchorage off the village at Makemo

Felicity at anchor off the village at Makemo

Layla arrived from Raroia a few days after we did.

Layla arriving through the turbulent pass on Makemo

We enjoyed exploring the town, and some great snorkeling off the town.

Cath and Ken snorkeling off the main village in Makemo

All the cruisers in the anchorage also got together at the small and only restaurant in town for dinner.

Group of cruisers overwhelming the one restaurant in Makemo

Tam in the kitchen with the owner of the small restaurant

This is also where we saw our first coconut crabs. These are large crabs that live on the motus and eat coconuts. They are supposed to be delicious, but were too expensive to buy and despite our efforts, were too elusive to catch.

Large coconut crab

Tam tempting her luck picking up a large coconut crab

After talking to several of the locals, we found several woman to wanted to sell or trade pearls with us. We met with three different women and traded various items and cash for pearls. You are usually presented with a bag of pearls and you can pick through them to find the ones you like and then the negotiating begins. Tam and Vernita and I all got some pearls including some carved pearls which a few artisans on the islands specialized in.

Trading for pearls at a woman's home in Makemo

My pearls - aka The Booty

I traded for some carved pearls, round pearls and keeshees, the natural pearls found in the oyster that were not started with a seed placed in them.

We had met a local man named Felix during our wanderings in town, whose brother owned a pearl farm. He invited us to come out to his farm to see it. It took a few days to arrange but we finally arranged it and Felix picked us up in his truck and drove us down the island to his brother's pearl farm. We feel very lucky to have been able to check out the farm as the grafters (specialists who visit the pearl farms and insert the seed into the oysters to start the pearl growing) were in town, allowing us to see all the activities at the farm.

The pearl farm hut

Lovely view down the inside of the lagoon from the pearl farm

The oysters are pulled from the water a total of three times. Young ones are harvested after their first year, then re-seeded by the grafters and returned for two years and their final production is for three years. Holes are drilled in the shells and they are kept tied on long lines in the lagoon while the pearls develop.

Oysters, which are much larger and with flatter shells than Northwest oysters, are tied on a line and kept in the lagoon while the pearl develops

The oysters are pulled from the lagoon, taken off the line and the growth is removed from the outside of their shells.

The oysters then have a wooden wedge put in their shells prying them open just far enough so the grafters can work but not so far open to kill the oyster

Bins of oysters sorted by age with the wedges in place await the grafters

Grafter

The grafters put the oyster in a vice where they remove the wedge and then with delicate instruments remove the pearl and replace it with another seed to start the next pearl growing

Inserting the small seed which starts the pearl growing in the oyster

The oysters are used 3 times for growing pearls, after that they can no longer produce pearls. The oysters are then opened up and killed.

Large oyster opened with a black pearl inside

The oysters are eaten by the locals, and the shells are then sold to Japan where the shells are used for the mother of pearl. You also see a number of the oyster shells polished, carved and sold in French Polynesia.

Oyster shells to be sold to Japan for the mother of pearl

Felix showing us some large pearls produced at his brother's farm

The large pearls Felix showed us will be sent to Tahiti where they will bring a very high price, strands of large black pears can go for several hundred thousand dollars

After enjoying the village at Makemo for about a week, we decided to head across the lagoon to the motus. We waited for the winds to calm down and for a nice sunny day. Many of the coral heads are marked around the pass and village in Makemo, but to spot the others that you must avoid as you cross the 10 mile trip across the lagoon you'd ideally like flat seas and the sun high and behind you.

We got an ideal day and set off for the couple hour motor across the lagoon. With sunny skies and flat water, the large coral heads are easy to see. One person stands on the bow and watches out for coral as the other person steers. At least in Makemo, most of the coral heads were at least hundreds of yards apart and were quite large. They are easily identified in the deep blue water of the lagoon by a lightening of the water to to a bright turquoise and then seeing the brown of the coral near the surface.

These coral heads however can disappear in the glare if the sun is ahead of you, in overcast skies, or in a heavy chop.

We had an uneventful crossing of the lagoon, and were rewarded with a lovely little motu where we anchored.

Motu in the distance was we crossed the lagoon

The motu we anchored off in Makemo - we felt like we were in Gilligan's Island

Stretch of coral between motus on the windward side of Makemo

We anchored off the motu, and felt like we were in a South Pacific postcard. Rainsong, Green Ghost, Fair Hippolyta, Alderbaran, Roger Henry, and other boats we had met were all anchored off the motu. We enjoyed daily snorkeling, beach fires, potluck dinners on the motu and exploring the windward side of Makemo. Ken even scaled a palm tree and knocked down some coconuts, which we cut open and used for rum drinks.

After about 4 days at the motu, some forecasted weather blew in with frequent squalls and gusts up to 30 knots. This weather was from the SSE, blowing right over the motu. Although the winds were high and we were rather stuck not being able to leave the atoll, we were safely nestled up next to the motu which protected us from short steep waves that the boats anchored off the village had to endure, which resulting in flipped dinghies and dragged anchors.

We all holed up for almost a week while the weather system blew through. We still ventured onto the motu at night for evening beach fires when weather permitted, enjoyed two birthday parties, and relaxing and spending time with friends.

One unfortunate event was that a few of the cruisers contracted Dengue Fever. There are several strains; only one is the hemorrhagic variety like Ebola, which fortunately is not in the South Pacific. However, Dengue is still something we're trying very hard to avoid. It is spread via mosquitoes like Malaria. However, there is no preventative medication and if you get it you just get sick and take a lot of painkillers. I guess it can lay you out for up to 6 weeks.

We know 3 cruisers who got it on Makemo and there are currently 8,000 reported cases in Tahiti. I guess it's the latest plague of the tropics. We load up on bug repellant whenever we go ashore and so far have been lucky. The Dengue mosquito apparently is a daytime mosquito that is prevalent in urban areas and likes shady areas. We'll be on our guard in the Society Islands. The good news is if you're anchored offshore the mosquitoes don't come out to your boat, so you only have to be careful ashore.

Finally the weather cleared, and we motored back to the village to dump garbage and prepare to leave for Tahiti.

We had some issues leaving both anchorages in Makemo. The bottom of the lagoons have so many coral heads it is almost impossible to not wind your anchor chain around them as you sit and swing at anchor. We did this twice and finally settled on a method to get the anchor up with only two of us. Ken goes in the water with his snorkel gear and directs me as I drive the boat around the coral heads, pulling the anchor up with the remote windlass control in the cockpit.

We had originally planned to head to one more atoll, Fakarava, where we had hoped to do a pass dive, but we had been kept hostage on Makemo due to the weather longer than we had planned. We were worried about checking on our extension to stay in French Polynesia so we decided to head directly for Tahiti.

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