Archive for May, 2010

Pass Teavatapu, Tahanea Atoll

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

We slipped into Tahanea after a calm night of incredibly slow sailing. Our entry was well timed and we eased around the pass reefs into a rare protected spot just before a blow from the southeast.

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We put out a Bahamian mooring (two anchors spread 180° on one line) in a 150’ x 60’ sandy patch, and added a third bow anchor just to hold us off a shallow coral head on the inshore side.

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We spent a quiet week snorkeling, beach combing, and hanging out with Bart, a Dutch vodka mogul who has been singlehanding his one-off 54’ aluminum boat Tranquillo for the past 5 years. 

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Bart is a man of action; he singlehanded to Antarctica and continued west-about around Cape Horn into the Pacific. After a couple of days of high wind boredom we started a kitesurfing support service so Bart could kitesurf and we would have something to do.

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We would launch him off the beach and then pick him up in his zippy dinghy before the sharks got him when he was done. Very entertaining!

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Bart shared his Argentinean barbecuing technique with us. It takes quite a while to grill a 4 lb roast but the results are fantastic.

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There was gluttony all around the beach that night. The hermit crabs were slack jawed at the size of S’s rum and coke.

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We discovered they have incredible powers of coconut detection. K found the very lowest of lowconuts – so we helped ourselves to a refreshing green coconut drink.  We left the empty nut on the ground and watched.

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Within minutes the leaf litter erupted as a scrum of ravenous hermit crabs marched out for bits of newly opened lowconut.

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The weather cleared and we got back to the business of tropical life.

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The small patches of reef on the sandy bank near the boat were full of life, mostly at a very small scale.  We cracked open the tropical fish of the Pacific book we packed across the ocean with us, so we’re able to identify a few.

A dusting of Blue-green Chromises…

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a Moorish Idol (with parrotfish and yellow-tailed dascyllus [dascylli?] in the background),

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and more chromises.

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The bigger corals were full of christmas tree worms,

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which come in a wide variety of colors.

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Here’s one of our new favorites – the big, colorful, luscious-lipped giant clams.

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They also come in many colors.

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Here’s a little Humbug Dascyllus

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A couple of Neon Damsels…

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Um, some other sort of Dascyllus…

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a chain of Convict Tangs


a Picasso Triggerfish


a Reticulated Butterflyfish


a Donald Duckfish (actually, a Saddleback Butterflyfish)


and a Threadfin Butterflyfish.


In addition to the ubiquitous Blacktip sharks there were a few larger specimens, not nearly as menacing. 

(a Goatfish)

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(a Flounder)

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(a Parrotfish)

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(a Trumpetfish)

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16°50.89’S 144°41.58’W   25-May-10 21:16 UTC

Tale of a Hermit Crab

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

It’s a short one. 

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One of the hazards of being a hermit crab on an atoll in the South Pacific (and there are many) is inhabiting a shell coveted by a beachcomber.  The peril increases when the crab is a little too inconspicuous inside his small fortress and the beachcomber takes no notice of his presence.

Such was the fate of one hermit crab who inhabited a beautiful white shell that resembled the horn of a legendary unicorn (in miniature).  I found this shell, saw it had a hole in the side and assumed the former occupant had been eaten by whatever had made the hole.  I took it back to the boat and stuck it on the wall in our bedroom with sticky gum for safe keeping.

A couple days later I discovered a naked hermit crab the floor.  There’s something about seeing a tiny crab in his birthday suit making his way across one’s bedroom floor in a futile search for a shell that makes one feel instant affinity for the vulnerable creature.  Besides, I was responsible for his homelessness.  I scooped him up and put him in a bowl.  We offered him the limited selection of shells we had on board, including the white one we assumed he’d come from.

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Not surprisingly, that’s the one he picked.

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The geometry of that shell seemed more than a little awkward to us, so we scoured the boat once more for more potential shell houses (besides, I wanted that shell back).  We ended up taking one of the shells K brought back from Africa off a window shade, where it’d been hanging for years.  I pried all the Elmer’s glue out of the inside and offered it to Crabby (or Herme, as K dubbed him).  He didn’t seem interested in transferring, so we just left it in his container overnight.  By the next morning, he’d made his move.  A wise choice, we thought.  This one was much more appropriately sized, more maneuverable, and had fancy long intimidating spikes.

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During his brief stay with us we supplied Herme with all the coconut and fresh water he seemed to desire.  Still, once in a while we’d catch him peering through the walls of his bowl with a far off look of yearning in his eyestalks.  We kept him as a pet for just a couple of days until we could take him back where he belonged.  I set him on the beach and he never looked back.

16°26.45’S 143°57.23’W 26-May-10 18:41 PDT

Makemo: Days on the Beach

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

There are several islands, or “motus,” that surround an atoll.

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We spent several days at Makemo going ashore on this one.

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We passed hours watching the creatures who hung out in the shallows. The shallows were so active that we stopped snorkeling among the bossy black tip sharks …

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and just watched the reef from the beach. 

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The little sharks were still curious enough to swim up to our feet in inches of water.

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We’ve been chasing these Picasso Triggerfish across the Pacific for a good picture. They are very camera shy but didn’t suspect us taking pictures with a long lens from above.

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There was some suspicious wrasse behavior going on in the shallowest of shallows. This Surge Wrasse looked guilty of some bodily function or other.

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There were lots of little morays. This one was trapped in a tide pool just big enough for him to turn around in.  He seemed confident that the tide would come in before he turned into moray jerky and tried to menace us from the other side of the liquid-gas phase barrier.

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The red crabs were equally happy in or out of the water.

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This coral colony paid a price for miscalculating the tide range but bravely pushed its live edge onward into the shallows.

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This attractive fellow was drying out either his head or his butt, who can say with a sea cucumber?

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S braved the ankle biters long enough to catch a gang of Convict Tangs commuting through a shallow pass to the offshore side of the atoll.

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K braved the long pointy beak of a serene frigate bird long enough to capture a few bird details.

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Somewhere a Muppet Show is missing its Gonzo.

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The bird-folk among you will also recognize this little grey (sooty?) palm tern.

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We spent the remainder of the days admiring the tropical plants (these white blossoms tinted the evening breeze in the anchorage with a scent much like honeysuckle),

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walking across the island,

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hunting the low-hanging coconuts (“lowconuts”),

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fulfilling our hammock-testing duty,

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and just enjoying the view.

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But what do you do if you forget your shoes??

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16°26.70’S 143°57.77’W 27-May-10 02:19 PDT

Tuamotus Passage, Part 2: Our first atoll entrance

Friday, May 21st, 2010

We motored along slowly all Tuesday afternoon toward Passe Tapuhiria, at the northwestern corner of Makemo atoll. 

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As we got close, we saw the mast of a sailboat that was anchored inside the lagoon, so we called out to them over the VHF.  We got an immediate reply from "Infini" (a Westsail 43).  We and asked them their opinion of the conditions in the pass.  They noted that although we’d likely have some current against us, the pass looked pretty good.  Great!  Eager to find an anchorage for the night we pressed on.   As we approached the pass, we confirmed that we knew the correct heading to make it through, and we agreed we’d go as high as 3200 rpms on the engine if needed.  Our navigation software told us it was about half an hour after low tide.

The water was full of riffles and swirls as we started getting near the wide entrance to the pass.  A quick comparison of our speed over ground (SOG, given by the GPS) to the boat speed through the water (more accurately, the speed of the water flowing past the boat – given by the speedometer installed in the hull) showed we had about 2 knots of current coming out of the pass against us.  No problem, we were still making good forward progress and had lots of engine "wheaties" to call upon.  

We entered the pass and steering became a bit more lively as the swirling water tried to push the boat around.  The currents also made the depth sounder start to give really shallow readings – though we knew they weren’t real, they always make S’s heart skip a beat.  The real excitement began just as we cleared the inside of the pass.  Here, two side channels join the main channel and the turbulent mixing of the streams slung the boat from side to side, while the current slowly increased in strength.  There were also two solid reefs flanking the pass.  We fought to keep the boat centered between the two channel markers and throttled up a bit on the Yanmar.  Things still looked good, we only had a little farther to go.  We got through that swirly section and thought we were in the clear (and apparently so did Infini who called out congratulations to us over the radio), but then we found ourselves facing an increasingly strong current as we continued up the channel. (The flow volume was probably only a third of the total leaving the atoll but at this point the channel cross section had decreased, causing a higher flow velocity.)   We took the engine up to 3200 rpms.  Our boat speed reached over 6 knots while our SOG dwindled to 2 knots, then 1 knot….then 0.5 knot!  We bumped the throttle up a wee bit more.  The engine roared.  We held our breath, hoped the engine would hold together, and watched our SOG.   It came up a bit to 1 knot: we hung on – we were still making progress and it was too late to turn back now. 

Slowly, finally, we reached the marker that told us we could turn out of the channel.   We turned the boat in the direction of the anchorage area and scanned the water for coral heads.  K scoped out a clear spot as best he could in the light of the setting sun, and we gratefully dropped our anchor in the fading light.  We turned off the engine and sat wide-eyed in the cockpit, calming our nerves. The lagoon was as still as a pond.   We vowed to avoid such drama in the future as best we could, and have since learned that rather than following the tide table, cruiser lore holds that the trick to timing the slack water at atoll passes is based on the moon: 3 hrs before and 5 hrs after moonset, and 4 hrs before and 5 hrs after moonrise.   The next day we moved to a bigger sandy patch amid the coral and deployed a 3 point anchor spread for position keeping in the middle of the clear spot.

There were great rewards for us in Makemo. We had the north end of the atoll to ourselves for 2 days and then the intrepid Anglo-Belgian crew on Flash 5 showed up and invited us to dinner on their 50 ft-ish shiny Amel Super Maramu 2000. With an espresso machine.  And a dishwasher.  And a washing machine.

The next day we teamed up to dive the pristine ocean side of the atoll, filling our tanks with Koen‘s awesome compressor.

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The coral was spectacular, rivaling the best Flower Gardens of the Red Sea (unfortunately it was too deep to take our camera).  K was ecstatic and considered shadowing Flash 5 around the rest of the Pacific:  "Ah, Captain Koen, imagine meeting you here, let us fill our tanks and explore the ocean depths between espressos and India Pale Ales."

We attempted to reciprocate their generosity with pizzas, homebrew, hand-peeled pamplemousse, turkish coffee, and the best hospitality Bint al Khamseen could offer with virtually no fresh food left. It was a great evening with enlightened conversation covering Belgian brewing and hops, draft horses, aviation, environmental remediation, subtle jokes about the French, and witty English commentary on everything. S charmed the three distinguished gentlemen with her best tropical grace while K shoveled pizza and homebrew out the companionway until all were sated long after the sun had set.

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16°27.00’S 143°57.75’W   25-May-10 21:16 UTC

Tuamotus Passage, Part 1: It’s All Part of the Adventure, Right?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

(now with pictures!)

We said farewell to the Marquesas on Thursday morning, May 13, setting off at 8 AM for what we thought would be a short passage to the atolls of the Tuamotus.  Our selected atoll, Makemo, was 500 miles to the southwest.  Guessing we’d make an average speed of at least 5 knots, we planned to be at the pass into the atoll at noon on Monday, only 4 days and 4 hours away.  Timing is important in Tuamotus; the tidal currents in most of the passes in the atolls are much stronger than we could hope to manage with our engine (some up to 10 kts), so we had to make our entry at slack water.

We had 20 knots of wind on the beam as we left Nuku Hiva and Khamseen scooted along at over 6 knots.  For a brief period we were concerned we’d get there too early.  No problem though, the wind slackened as we passed west of Ua Pou and stayed around 10 knots.  Now we were going a bit too slow but we had lots of time to make it up – we thought.    We had a nice easy passage over the next couple of days – downright boring, just how we like it.  

Then on Sunday morning the wind totally died.  Reluctantly we started the engine.  We estimated we had 70 gallons of our Mexican diesel left, but since we won’t be able to buy any more until we reach Tahiti, we didn’t want to use it all up getting to our first atoll.  We looked at our nav software to weigh our options and found another atoll, Raroia, which lay at the perfect distance for us to reach it by Monday morning.  We eased the throttle up only as much as necessary to keep to the schedule, and soon we were making progress again at about 4 knots.  We were happy; Raroia looked interesting, had a small village, and was a bit off the beaten track.  We had only one more day to go.  Plus, in the calm conditions, the seabirds pointed out a school of tuna right in front of the boat.  K deployed the buzz bomb and within a minute had snagged a gorgeous tuna.  Life was good.

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Things changed dramatically as the night came on.  

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A low pressure system far to the south slung a frontal system our way.  The wind increased to near 20 kts so the sails came back out.  Unfortunately the breeze was right on our nose and the seas increased too to a short chop, so forward progress was miserably slow and bouncy.  Then a series of small squalls came up through the darkness that repeatedly threw gusts at us of over 20 knots (quick – reef the sails!) then just as quickly died away (long enough to fool us into easing the reefs back out), but not before drenching the watchman to the bone.  It was one of those nights that made S wonder where the next bus stop was.

By Monday morning the squalls were gone but due to our slow progess overnight we knew we’d have to give up on Raroia and once again decided that Makemo was the place to be.  Perfect!  We cracked off the wind a hair and started sailing again at 6 knots and the motion of the boat was much improved.   Though we now had to add one more day to our passage, it didn’t matter so much, we were making good progress, and one more day wasn’t so bad.  The wind eased throughout the day but we managed to sail until about 2 AM before the wind died once again.  But this time the sea was calm; it was a beautiful night and we were able to time our slow motoring to make it to the northern pass at Makemo in time for slack water at the high tide. 

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We arrived at 7:30 AM – plenty of time to take a good look at the pass and make our entry when conditions looked right. 

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We watched the pass and snuck closer.  We sighted the rangemarkers and other points of reference indicated in our guidebook.  We had our cheat sheets with nav instructions.  We tested K’s conning position up at the spreaders. 

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We watched some more and tested the waters, but the current leading to the pass seemed to be getting more and more agitated.  We backed away.  We turned again toward the pass.  K wanted to ease in and measure the current; S voted to wait.  K, with the requisite testosterone level and oceanographic curiosity, took the helm and started in.  As we got closer to the pass entrance, the sea started looking more and more reminiscent of Deception Pass in Washington – surface boils and whirlpools, and in the distance standing waves just outside the entrance.  Hmmm, why would it be so rough outside the entrance when the tide was supposed to be flooding in, not coming out?  We continued on until the current against us was 5 knots faster than our forward progress and we were reluctant to push our engine any harder.  We turned tail and were quickly flushed offshore.  As we sat there scratching our heads, rechecking our tide tables, and looking up “when is slack tide?” in our French dictionary, a couple of local fishermen came by in their skiff.  We couldn’t understand all they were saying, but we did get the message that – most likely due to the frontal system we’d encountered with its strong south winds – the seas had overtopped the southern end of the atoll and, much like a bathtub, raised the water level inside the lagoon.  All that water was now apparently draining through the two passes, creating much rougher conditions than normal.  The bottom line was that it would not be possible for us to enter, the pass was in full ebb mode all the time. 

What now?  Luckily it was only 9 AM, so we had plenty of daylight left.  We considered our options and decided to head for the other pass into the atoll, this one located on the northwestern end, where  the guidebook said there was a shoal outside the entrance where a boat could anchor and wait for the right conditions for entering.  Of course, this pass was upwind and the wind was only 5 knots.  With little choice we throttled up the engine again and headed for the other pass, 25 miles distant.  Though we were undeniably frustrated and disappointed, we tried to keep a positive attitude and see the humor in all this; after all, it’s all part of the adventure, right?

16°26.65’S 143°57.20’W   19-May-10 03:47 UTC


Friday, May 14th, 2010

The delirium of the two person watch system is fully developed on Bint Al Khamseen and that can only mean that we’ve shaken the mud off our anchor and headed offshore. Altogether we spent a month in the Marquesas (actually K spent a bit less due to a quick business trip) and we are carrying fine memories of these well-fruited, horse, chicken and shark infested islands with us as we make for the Tuamotu island group 500 nm south.

Expectations of the coming month are high. K is forcing the gates on his past, hoping to return to underwater gardens equal to those of his youth in the Red Sea. S is excited (yeah, that’s the word) about meeting lots of sharks and navigating through boat-munching coral heads. But there is not a drop of adrenaline on board at the moment as we stroll through calm seas, barely awake, anticipating only the soul-sapping heat of midday and consecutive sweat-drenched naps.

09°28.63’S 140°23.77’W 14-May-10 00:18 UTC

Rewind: Nuku Hiva Memoir

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Taiohae on the island of Nuku Hiva is the biggest town in the Marquesas.  While K went back to the States for a meeting back in early May, I spent a week on the hook doing boat chores and getting caught up on a mountain of laundry (have you hugged your appliances today?).    But we did manage to go ashore and see the town.


Our mouths watered as we marvelled again at the copious fruit growing in nearly everyone’s yards (notice the rooster poised over the golden mango on the ground?).


One of K’s favorite features of the town was the salami tree in front of the bank:

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My favorite feature was the horses scattered all around town: on the beach, in people’s front yards, and even in the drainage canals. 


Some look better fed than others.  There was at least one horse that didn’t seem to know what a carrot was.  

There was a young man who galloped his horse along the waterfront every day.  Reminiscent of the puppy washing at Bahia Tortuga, one day he took her into the surf for a scrub.  As he playfully ran away from her she followed him onto the beach.

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Our new friends Linda and John on the Hans Christian 33 Nakia introduced us to our anchorage neighbors (and dog owners) Daphne and Erik from Windweaver, and to Rose Corser, who owns a small hotel in town.  Rose, a native of Oklahoma, was an art teacher looking for a place to do her graduate research when she and her husband Frank decided to sail to the Marquesas in the early 1970s.  They started a hotel in town that opened up the island for tourism.  Rose sold the hotel after Frank died but now she’s starting a new small hotel with a bar and restaurant.  Rose is an expert in local culture and customs as well as local plants and their traditional uses.  She’s certainly seen a lot of change on the islands over the years, but, she tells us, the people haven’t changed.  What an inspiration! 

A highlight of my time in Taiohae was meeting Laura, who was fishing at the dinghy dock while I was doing laundry one Saturday morning.

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Laura knows a little English and was very patient with my attempts at French. We took turns thumbing through my French/English dictionary and phrase book to learn about one another.  It turns out that Laura is 12, she comes from Mont-de-Marsan in France, but she’s been on the island with her parents for the past 3 years. 

Once K got back from his trip, we bought groceries and made the short hop west over to Hakatea Bay.  Hakatea appears to be something of a bedroom community. 


We took the dinghy a short way up the small river and tied it to a tree before starting onto the path that would take us to a waterfall. 


The path lead us past several houses – complete with horses, chickens, more heavily laden fruit trees - 


and the community telephone with associated telephone pole. 


We greeted some locals and their dogs…



as the path gradually lead us across some streams and into the woods.  As usual, the our way was littered with blossoms.


We passed by many intriguing stone structures and other reminders of the island’s ancient inhabitants.




We walked for hours, scoring a few near-rotten windfall mangoes and a couple of green coconuts along the way,


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before we came into a green valley surrounded by breathtakingly steep rock walls.  Tropic birds sang and flitted above us.


The path lead us on to the head of the valley.  The 900 ft waterfall wasn’t much more than a trickle against the far wall, but it fell from an impressive height. 


The cool water in its swimming hole was clearer and the crawfish even bigger than those on Fatu Hiva.  Luckily again we saw no eels.




08°56.61’S 140°09.85’W 12-May-10 04:30 PDT