Raroia

I read an article on Lou’s Ipad by Roy Starkey, a long term cruiser now living at Hog Island, Grenada who for the last 36 years has cruised the world three times round in search of Utopia (see www. yachtingmonthly.com, Feb 16). He complains about the changes he has seen over this time and even takes a swipe at the Hitchcock’s way of life, when he met them back in the 70’s. He argues that the Tuamotus is the one place left where Utopia exists mainly because…… “ there is nothing there. Nothing to develop. Even the locals have gone away, chasing the western dream. It is the one place left where you can truly find peace and quiet”.

Sounds wonderful. I wonder then why he has chosen to settle in Hog Island, in my opinion a God awful place, over crowded and smellier than most anchorages in the Caribbean.

Hey ho. Our arrival at our first atoll in the Tuamotus gives us the opportunity to make our own assessment. Raroia is about halfway down the Tuamotus group and is one of the most easterly atolls in the northern group. It has a population of less than 40, mainly in one village on the W side of the atoll with six living at the pearl farm on the E side. It is about 15 miles long and 5 miles wide. One thing we immediately noticed was how cool the nights were. The 400miles S we have come have been enough to drop the night time temperatures to about 80F and we needed to break out the blanket for the first couple of nights until we were used to it again. Daytime temperatures are in the low to mid 90s but fresh due to the constant breeze –  really very pleasant.

The first couple of days were windy and cloudy as the front that gave us all the wind in the last day of passage down here went through. The shoreline in front of us had hundreds of downed coconuts floating in the flat sheltered water, all blown down by the wind that went through. I don’t think it went above 35kts but it is the first strong wind the island had had for a while.

We used the time to fix a few small boat issues, catch our breathe and restart school. We visited some of the closer motus and found some floats used by the pearl farming industry, washed up on the outside of the reef. We decided that we would donate them to the pearl farm in the hope they might be nice back. It didn’t work. I now wish I had kept more than one of them. More on this later.

Our anchorage at 16 06.16S  142 22.70W is glorious and one of the most picturesque we have been in. Sadly the motu in front of us, with all the shelter provided by the coconut trees, has spiders (my ladies are wusses – imagine the squeals), mosquitoes and no-see-ums so it isn’t quite paradise but there is lots of shallow water which, when the weather permits, is wonderfully clear. The snorkelling is ok and we have been conducting swimming lessons – finally getting Hannah to do proper breaststroke, rather than her own particular version of it. For snorkelling, we have been exploring the bombies S of us. The list of new fish has been exciting Eleanor and the “Reef Fish Identification – Tropical Pacific” book by New World Publications has been getting a hammering.  My favourite one so far is the wonderfully named Humbug Dascyllus – think of a clownfish but in black and white – although the 18” baby Peppered Moray Eel that panicked and tried to hide under my foot takes a close second!  It is also been nice to have a resident team of Sharksuckers (similar to Remora but bigger) beneath the boat again, the first we have seen since the Bahamas.

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The anchorage is by the largest motu on the E side of the atoll. Most other motus have far fewer trees or bushes and more wind, eliminating the bugs. They are on average 400-500m from outer reef to bay with the motus never more than 250m of that depth. The rest is made up of old coral reef, brutally sharp, with narrow gullies between each motu with water running into the bay at a good rate from over the reef. The fastest current we have seen was about 8kts. The sand on all of them is a vivid orange. Who needs “posh” pink sand? This stuff is amazing. Ginger sand!!

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A couple of motus down, we came across a small nesting colony of terns. There were two types, as alike as chalk and cheese but happy to be around each other. They obviously hadn’t seen man often as they weren’t bothered by us walking past quite close.  Whilst we have a great collection of reference books on board, one we are sadly lacking is a bird identification book. We may have to try and rectify this when we hit civilisation again.  However, two birds that I was amazed to recognise by sight and their calls were some form of Curlew and Peewits, both of which are here in some numbers. I will be interested in looking at the migration patterns for both birds to see how the W coast of Scotland and French Polynesia fit in to their schedule!

Nesting terns - A chick in the nest and an adult  P1040776

One aspect of coral sand I “knew” but hadn’t really appreciated, is just how viciously sharp it is. There are few areas of truly soft sand. Most beaches have small lumps of broken coral mixed in. After our first foray ashore, we quickly decided that we need to wear shoes all the time.  Crocs, as I found, are just too soft and neither protected my feet adequately nor will they last long against the extraordinary roughness of old coral. A word to the wise. The locals here mainly use a clear plastic sandal, the same shoe we saw used in the Marquesas and sold in every store for about $20 a pair. I’m not sure how long they actually last but the French sailors who have been here a while almost uniformly use them. I think we might invest in a pair of these each, just to protect the decent shoes we have. My old beach shoes lasted just one visit ashore before falling apart, the sole ripped from standing on something terminally sharp.

 A typical cut between motus. Note the sharp coral - evil stuffAttempted arty shot

We also looked at how to ensure we protected the dinghy too. It isn’t as much as new procedures as absolutely enforcing the rules we used before. I have no wish for punctures so getting in the dinghy involves a sanitising of all coral sand from body and shoes before people are allowed in. The dinghy is always anchored off and not allowed to touch bottom. The engine is always lifted to protect the prop from coral lumps once we get to wading range of shore. We swim or wade ashore.  I’m also very glad that I put 6’ of chain onto my dinghy anchor. I don’t think rope alone would last long. I wash out the dinghy daily to catch any last piece of sand we may have missed.

Our visit to the Pearl Farm was interesting. We saw the oysters being prepared with plastic ball inserts and an irritant to stimulate the growth and the girls got to wear a lot of moneys worth of pearls. They wanted $800 for the necklace which I think would be pretty good value but not quite what we were looking for.  The technical work is being carried out by a couple of Chinese, the labour is locals and the management is from New Caledonia. Although a bit difficult to see and much to the amazement and amusement of the girls, the lady behind Hannah has her eyebrows tattooed on!

The pearls here come in two sizes. The ones around Hannah’s wrist are one year pearls and each are the size of a large pea. The necklace is made of two year pearls. Two year pearls are simply one year pearls reinserted to a second oyster and allowed another year to grow. We came away with some fresh oyster shells. I’ve already had a go with the Dremel and my first effort in jewellery actually came out looking pretty good, well enough that the girls argued over it. I need a bit more practise before I make my fortune in it.

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The differences in the sea and inland side of the motus are marked. The bay side is what you would expect of an island paradise. Beautiful sand, clear, flat water and idyllic tropical islands in abundance. The seaward side looks like a moonscape. Rough smashed up old coral in a flat plain extending hundreds of metres towards the sea and extending right round the atoll. We have been surprised and pleased how little litter and rubbish we have found washed up. The odd fishing float (returned to the pearl farm), one lot of fishing line (removed after some effort) and the occasional plastic bottle but that is about it. We also found a whale’s skull. What type, other than a baleen, we don’t know but it looked like a youngster’s by the size of it.

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A whale's skull

The weather since we arrived has been variable to say the least. A near gale to arrive to, lots of rain, lots more wind and generally overcast. It is obvious that the Easterly trades aren’t always the “established” weather pattern as they are a little further N in the Marquesas. We have had all points of wind including, for a surprising six hours, from the W before clocking v quickly back through S to ESE. As our forecast grib has a six hour snapshot, we missed the fact it was coming. The saving grace was the wind was weak and never went above 12kts. At 0200hrs with no moon and no ambient light, we ended up in 4’ of water and had me sweating a bit about two small lumps of coral just on the edge of our swing room. Our draft is 3’ 2”. Note – front here mean front and you will see the wind clock right around the compass as one goes through. That is very different to everywhere else in the Pacific we have been to so far where a wave may through the wind out by 30-45degrees and strengthen but little else until the trades reestablish themselves.  I got away with it this time but have learnt my lesson. Make sure you get a 3hr grib forecast if there is a front coming through and expect a clocking wind. I think I’ll also need to be more conservative on my anchoring sites or be prepared to move well before a change in the weather arrives. It really calls for the Georgetown Shuffle (Bahama sailors will know what I mean) but here movement is limited because of the dangers of bombies.  The other item of note is that whilst you have the ability to find good sand patches on the E side of atolls, sand blown over the reef and deposited by the sea, on the W side of atolls you will invariably be anchoring on coral.

Whilst we did not need to do it this time around, the buoying of your anchor is good habit to get into here. By buoying I mean, putting buoys along your anchor chain to lift the chain from the bottom to allow it to swing 10’ above the bottom, generally above the height of the coral lumps to save you getting wrapped. The technique is discussed in the Tuamotus Compendium which I strongly recommend you take a look at. I have borrowed a picture as they have done from Sail Magazine.

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Our new French friends, Luc and Jeanette on FANO, having lived here in FP for six years, do it as a matter of course,  always have two floats out and thoroughly recommended the practise. They only very rarely wrap and even then it is normally the first 20-30’ of chain rather than anything more serious. In a typical 35-45’ anchorage, the first buoy is attached around 10-15m from the anchor which allows the chain to lie at the correct angle. The second float is half way between that 1st float and the boat. I made up one float, hand sewing a carbineer and webbing strap on to the base attachment of the float. Having given away all the floats we found when we first arrived, we need to do some more beach coaming to make ourselves a second.   

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We attempted to jump up to the Kon Tiki anchorage early in our stay but quickly decided to move back S and wait until the wind moved back into the E. There was just too much swell developed in wind with a Northerly component. On our second attempt, we anchored at 16 03.84S 142 21.70W on sand in 45’ of water with 20kts from the E and no swell.  It was nice to hear the wind generator working again after the shelter of our first anchorage. Absolutely no requirement for the generator at this site.

On anchor. Dawn over the Kon Tiki motu

We had a three days exploring the Kon Tiki site and the reef either side of where the raft came ashore after its long trip in 1947. It hit the atoll as the strong westerly current here and trade winds were too much for a raft that had no pointing ability. They simply couldn’t steer the raft well enough to go around the atoll. There is no marker to show where the raft hit on the reef itself – it wouldn’t last long  – but there is a small marker in the middle of the motu 200m E of the anchorage erected in 2007, the 60th anniversary of the voyage. 

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It is amazing to think that nearly 70 years ago a small group led by Thor Heyendahl decided to sail across the Pacific to prove his idea that Polynesia could have been populated from S America. Although most of the ideas that he expounded have been proven wrong since, his endeavour and sheer guts to do as he did with his team still takes the breathe away. 4000+miles on a raft able only to sail downwind and at a slow walking pace. It is a staggering achievement. We cruisers worry about being able to do it now, helped by all our technology. Imagine what it would be like setting out on an unproven reed raft with the limit of technology available being a sextant with the breadth of the Pacific to go. I’m reminded of the James Hunt interview (a world champion F1 racing driver in the 70s) by Stirling Moss when he was asked how he did what he did so well. His answer – “Big balls” – stands as one of the most accurate and succinct answers I have ever heard. I think you could apply the answer equally well to the Kon Tiki crew. Oh and add in a bit of crazy as well……

The motu is home to number of female Frigate birds and a flock of terns who kept us under close supervision as we visited the memorial.

 P1040798Skylark and tender parked off Kon Tiki Motu.

The channels in between  motus are vibrant with life. In the channels with less current, you will see hundreds of Sea Cucumber (Eleanor’s description – things that look like lumps of poo) and large schools of juvenile fish feeding in the protected shallows. They are a nursery for a variety of Moray eels too. We have seen baby Giant and Peppered Moray eels, none more than 2’ long, swimming quickly from rock to rock and sometimes getting confused what my large blue crocs were. At the entrances to the channels, just as the water gets deeper, you will also see juvenile (3-4’) black tips sharks, playing in the warm shallows. Some came to investigate us as we were crossing between two sand bars, quickly scooting off once they realised we were uninteresting.

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I have tried again to take photos of the superb night skies here. Sunset here is about 1730hrs and it is pitch black by 1800hrs. With a quickly setting waxing moon and clear skies, I thought I wouldn’t get a better chance to take some good photos of the Milky Way that blazes above us every night. Although I have tried on several nights, I have come way disappointed. It seems our camera just isn’t up to it, even experimenting with 15 and 30 second exposure times. We need a camera with a bigger aperture, something of a SLR size, I think.

We have Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn all visible at the moment. We watched whilst the Moon slowly occluded Jupiter the other night and there are shooting stars and satellites aplenty. And the Southern Cross sitting alone in its dark patch at the S end of the Milky Way. Just beautiful.  Memories for me but nothing to show you. Sorry. 

Just before we left we unexpectedly met up with our friends Irene, Georg, Mia and Noah from ZigZag, last seen in the Marquesas, which led us to stay an extra few days. After our initial catch up over coffee and mayonnaise cake (a new and very good recipe Lou has found – see that new section of the blog site),  they moved up to our more sheltered anchorage. They had a major problem in that their watermaker high pressure container had cracked and they were down to their last 20l of water as the entered the atoll. We gave them some of the left over epoxy we had from fixing the rudder at Hiva Oa and it took a day to get a few layers built up. The watermaker hasn’t been on yet as Georg wants to give it a decent time to cure before he starts putting pressure in it.  In the meantime, we ran our watermaker were able to give them some water in jugs to load them up. It allowed them stay and enjoy Raroia for a few days rather than just rushing through to Makemo where they should be able to fill up at the pier, one of the few places you can in the Tuamotus.

We had a last day on the beach letting the kids eat sand and have fun. Georg and I tried to catch some coconut crabs by baiting an area with split coconuts but all we attracted were hundreds of hermit crabs. We also went for a night stroll equipped with big torches to wade at the edge of the reef to see if we could find any lobster. Another abject failure but we did see a Napoleon Snake Eel which buries itself in sand and only comes out at night which softened the blow to the egos. Our last night BBQ ended up with the traditional burgers and sausages.

Georg and Mia on the kayak with their propellor, HannahNoah still nearly walking!

As a first atoll and introduction to the Tuamotos, Raroia has been great. With very few yachts and almost no locals, the place is a quiet as a grave and as pretty as a picture. What is Utopia, I wonder? Everyone will have their own definition. If solitude, unspoilt natural beauty and fantastic anchorages are key ingredients, then I can see why Ray still thinks Utopia can be found here. For us? It is beautiful and we are loving it but we need to see some more atolls to establish our definition before we make judgement.

Onward to Makemo.

Skylark at rest at Raroia

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