Saturday, August 16, 2008

Shiriri Saga #42. The Tuamotus. Moonlight over Manihi.

Tuamotu sunrise.

After the long passage to the Marquesas from Mexico, the rest of our hops across the South Pacific will seem relatively short, but even so, after a turbulent exit through the confused waves leaving Daniel`s Bay and the Marquesas we find the reality of bouncing and crashing along reaching across the fresh trade winds to be a nasty reawakening. Back to difficult cooking and sail handling, and keeping watch with it`s lack of sleep, as the watch below regularly gets called up to reef sail. After a couple of days however we adjust to the rhythm and settle back into our routines. We realize that we have made a transition somewhere along the line. The ocean has become our normal place of residence, and the ports along the way are our holiday weekends into exotic worlds.

Leaving Taiohae Bay.
The Journal:
Day 6. May 12. Excitement at dawn. Way off to starboard is a thin line of black on the horizon - like a thin moustache. As the sun gets higher and we get closer it becomes a line of palm trees. Two years ago I drew a picture of Miss Chickpea at the masthead pointing at the land to direct the crew below - now it`s a reality. I just reefed the fores`l. Shiriri was doing 7 knots and that seems excessive for our approach. Now, reefed, she is still doing 5: she smells the barn!
14 miles to the pass on the SW side of Manihi atoll.
Rereading Charlie`s Charts on the entrance details.

PM. OK, our first successful entrance to a coral atoll. I conned
Shiriri from high up on the ratlines of the foremast (so as to see down into
the water on the lookout for shoals and coral heads) as we came through the pass quickly on the last of the flood tide. We then motored slowly across the lagoon against the wind between coral heads and pearl oyster buoys to an anchorage behind a motu ( a coral island on the encircling reef). Very beautiful! Got sails away, wind scoop rigged and Edith in the water. Now, pancakes for lunch.

FLAT CALM!!! - not since Barra Lagoon in Mexico two months ago have we been out of the roll of the sea.

Entering the pass.

In the lagoon:
Manihi is at the northern end of a chain of low atoll islands called the Tuamotus. Before GPS navigation, these were tricky to sail among due to their reefs, unpredictable currents and sometimes overcast skies ( a problem for celestial navigation). Even now, they pick up a goodly share of visiting yachts on their reefs. The passes are still tricky, the holding ground inside the lagoons for anchors sometimes poor and the trade winds are regularly interrupted by lows that bring strong winds from unexpected directions. The lagoons are so protected from the ocean waves it is tempting to relax and let your guard down and forget they are dangerous places to be.


I am regularly having the strange sensation that I am living in my dreams. That dawn arrival at the Marquesas was the achievement of a lifetime, and now we are walking on a coral atoll, hearing the wind in the palm trees and the crash of the waves on the outer edge of the reef. I have read Thor Heyerdahl`s books, especially Kon Tiki, and here I am, not many miles north from where his raft landed on another atoll. I`ve imagined this place all my life and now, by following my dreams, I`ve caught up and am now living in the midst of them!

After the high volcanic islands we have just left, the islands on the atolls are very different: they are barely above sea level and are built entirely from broken coral thrown up by waves onto the reef that encloses the lagoon. The vegetation is sparse and mostly palms. We walk out to the windward side and pick around for shells and, when we are not doing that, we swim among the fish in the lagoon. I scrub the prop with a wire brush and worry about sharks nibbling my extremities, only to find a remora sticking around and having a close look at me. Most of the coral is dead and white, perhaps from storms or warmer temperatures. These islands will be the first to go if ocean levels rise.


We visit with the Flyers, who arrived the day before us and with David and Lisa on Francis who we had met in Taiohae Bay. Heather and Anne get deep into some recent Harry Potter books short term loaned by the Flyer girls. It seems strange to be reading while in exotic locales, but reading is a major cruising interest and trading books a secondary motivation for getting to know new boats in anchorages along the way. We all expand our reading preferences of necessity and hope to trade with cultured wealthy people who have the best quality to exchange for tired tattered paperbacks. There is something about reading that brings complexity and colour into lives that encompass stretches of boredom with moments of terror. The more experienced we get, the less terror and the more need for books! The stories we read are so vivid to us out here, as we ourselves lead a life squeezed down to the essentials.

One day, Heather and I row ashore in Edith and then I quicky row back to Shiriri to get my forgotten sandals - walking on the coral is too rough for my bare feet. Back at the beach, I find Heather has attracted the attention of a herd of pigs and is prepared to fight them off with a stick while standing up to her knees in the lagoon. That night I write up the days events in the journal and in my sketch I dramatize the pig story by placing Heather half way up a palm tree. Artistic licence, yes, but the treed image is somehow more true to the dramatic moment and , more importantly, sure to draw an indignant shriek from Heather. We make our own entertainment in whatever ways possible.

The Flyers come over for supper one evening and it is so hot we eat out in the cockpit in the bright moonlight. Below us in the clear water a squadron of rays is gliding past in formation. Above us, puffy clouds drift slowly downwind. Beside us the wind rustles in the palms on the motu. We have definitely arrived in the South Seas.

Low ragged rain clouds and stormy winds from a cold front reaching up from the southern ocean have us pleased to be tucked in behind the motu and not at sea. The palms bend and toss their heads and we stick with our boat. Our anchor is in a patch of coral sand and sometimes that is underlain by hard smooth coral that will not hold our anchor. Shiriri is anchored with a couple of coral heads behind us and cannot really let out too much more chain. We run the engine during the stronger gusts to cushion the wind pressure. All is well `til next morning when the wind shifts and comes across fifteen miles of lagoon. All the yachts swing to face the wind and those close inshore are now very close to the beach and each other. In the change of direction our anchor rode wraps around some lumps of coral fifty feet below which hold us firmly enough even as it saws away at our chain. Slowly the trade winds pick up again over the next couple of days and all returns to normal. Now we can make our next move on to Tahiti. This stormy interlude has reminded us though, how exposed we are to misadventure and the advantage of traveling with other yachts: we are not just here to be fair weather friends; we can help each other if we get into trouble. We hear stories of incredible efforts made by yachts to assist each other and are proud to be part of such a community.

With her engine mounted on the stern, Edith carries us along the edge of the lagoon for a final visit to the little village at the pass. We wander the white coral streets between the concrete block homes and try to feel what life is like for the local people. For us, it is the far side of the world and the isolation would be very difficult for us folks from busy Saltspring Island to adjust to. That is more a fault with us than with this coral island world. The pass is filled with beautiful little fish and the current is ebbing out the pass, which is what we came to find out. We rush back to our boat, hoist Edith back onto the cabin top, struggle to get our anchor chain unwrapped from the coral, wave goodbye and wind our way carefully back through the lagoon between the coral heads and out through the swirling currents of the pass into the waves again. Destination: Tahiti.

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