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Apsara's Log: Tuamoto Tango

Wed, 23 Jun 2004 08:15:45  
15 40.8 S, 143 01.8 W  
Wind 20 knots, SE by S  

Apsara has a bone in her teeth romping toward the "Dangerous Archipelago" at nine knots. The moon set two hours ago and the sky is clear with the Southern Cross directly ahead and the winds fresh and strong on the port bow. This is our third night on passage, we have 400 miles behind us, 80 to go, and it is just the two of us, taking 3 hour watches through out the nights and 4 or 5 hour watches during the day. Nancy shortened sail on her watch from 6:00 to 9:00 pm, furling in the jib and unfurling the stay sail. So now we are beating along with a deep reef in the main and the stay sail out. The boat is loving it.

Some 30 miles to the east of us tonight is Rairoa atoll where in 1947 Thor Heyerdahl's Kon Tiki finally washed ashore in his dramatic attempt to prove that the Polynesians had migrated from South America. Washing ashore on the windward side of a largely uncharted pile of coral must have been something; we are doing all we can to avoid a repeat.

The Tuamotos, part of French Polynesia, are called the Dangerous Islands because the 76 islands, stretching 800 miles NW to SE are nearly all atolls and thus are very difficult to spot until one is nearly upon them.

[Island Sidebar: Atolls are the last phase of an island's life before it sinks into the sea. Almost all islands are volcanic in origin and in their initial phases look like Hawaii or the Marquesas - tall rugged lava mountains fringed by shallow coral if in the tropics. Eventually the high island mountains wear down or collapse back into their hollow volcanic cones and the edges begin to sink, leaving a lagoon between the shrinking island and the coral reef - Bora Bora is the best know example of this type of island. Atolls have no center land at all, just the big open lagoon surrounded by the coral reef and small islands, called motos, above sea level. The donut-style atoll can be dozens of miles across and hundreds of feet deep; Rangiroa's lagoon, the largest of the Tuamotos is 40 miles long and 20 miles wide - too far to see across]

For centuries navigators have struggled with the strong currents and the inaccurate charts of the Tuamotos and many ships and sailing yachts have come to their end here. At 10-15 miles radar may be able to pick out an atoll with palms. If there are not palms, and often there is nothing but reef, you might not see anything on radar until the last mile, which at 9 knots we cover in 6 minutes. Today we have GPS and more trustworthily charts (we can trust the French, right?), but there still can be inaccuracies of up to a few miles. Tonight, around 3:00 AM we will, supposedly, pass less than 10 miles from Taenga atoll. We will be watching the radar closely - hoping for palm trees - until we pick this atoll up or are safely past it.

We stayed about ten days in the Marquesas, seven of those days in a wonderful quiet bay called Ivaiva on Tahauta, near the big island of Hiva Oa. After several nights of poor, rolling anchorages, Ivaiva was calm, deserted, with a blond sand beach - rare for the Marquesas where most sand is black and most anchorages have no beaches. The rest was well needed as we have been pretty much moving since Nancy's parents and uncle joined us in Bonaire, some three months ago. Since then we have had constant (and appreciated) guests and crew, but it is nice to have our home to ourselves for a little while.

Tahauta had some amazing sea life. We swam, on three separate days with giant manta rays that feed in the bay each morning. The largest of the rays was 15-18 feet wing tip to wing tip. We also saw sharks and a giant moray eel with a head bigger than mine. We made new friends of several boats - Spanish, British, even a couple from San Diego. In general the yachts here in the Pacific seem to be cruised by younger people, many with small children. A Swedish family of four adult sons and father on a 39 foot boat had us over for a welcomed fish dinner. In route to the Marquesas, these guys caught an eleven foot marlin plus several 100+ pound tuna.

About the time you read this e-mail we should be starting to negotiate the pass into the Makemo atoll where we hope to spend several days if the weather and holding ground are fine. Getting inside an atoll can be challenging since one is basically running a break in the reef. Makemo's pass is only 100 feet wide and if carefully threaded we should have 25 feet of water. In addition to finding the correct path through the coral we expect to deal with strong outgoing current. We will time our arrival to coincide with "slack water" but due to the continual waves that dump water over the reef into the lagoon, there is said to always be an out flowing current. Hopefully, once inside we will find some calm, protected anchorage but this can not be known until we are inside and see the conditions. The lagoon is 10 miles across and over 100 feet deep with coral heads that climb all the way to the surface. We will have to eyeball our way through here as their are no detailed charts of the lagoons.

We'll spend a few weeks here in the central Tuamotos, hope to visit a few more less populated atolls before sailing 200 miles to the Society Islands, which include Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea.

Best to everyone,

Scott and Nancy

PS - now 3:00 AM, have passed Taenga which was never visible due to a series of squalls which Nancy piloted us through while I cowered below, staying dry and eating popcorn, as captains are wont to do.


s/v Apsara

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