Our stop in Suwarrow was comprised mostly of hiding from 30 knots winds created by a squash zone from a gigantic 1044 high in the south with effects that had people digging in from the Gambier to Tonga. So we don’t have much to offer about what you might do there to enjoy yourself. What we found out was more what you can’t do, and after French Polynesia and the Tuamotos the list felt onerous. Here’s what the ranger who was running things in the winter of 2019 said:
No anchoring except at anchorage island by the ranger station. Period.
No diving. Period. (Why?)
No fishing inside the lagoon.
No going ashore on ANY motu in the park anywhere except the ranger island (supposedly because of their rat eradication program)
Technically the rules even dictate when you can leave through the pass (not before noon) though I have no idea how they think they would enforce that.
There are more no no’s, mainly things you’d expect to be prohibited. At the bottom of the list, there’s a caveat that says the ranger can add anything he wants to the list, and the current Ranger took that to heart.
That leaves snorkeling, pretty much, and nothing else.
Unfortunately, though this obviously feels excessive and extreme, the behavior of some yacht visitors has served to make the ranger feel more adamant about enforcing and expanding his rules. It doesn’t help that some people feel they have a right to harvest coconut crabs and even lament not having taken more when they found out they could sell them for big money in Niue. Or that some members of the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) showed up before the legal opening, trashed the place (according to the ranger) and left their flag planted on the beach. Suwarrow is a designated sanctuary and should be treated with the same respect as a national park anywhere.
Because the forecast called for the possibility of SE winds over 50 knots we asked for permission to anchor in the better protected SE corner and were denied. Unwilling to test the ranger’s theory that the allowed anchorage would be safe (there is at least one yacht sunk on the NW corner of that tight anchorage with south exposure), we moved, despite his objections to the south east corner, invoking our right under international law to ‘safe haven.’ Our biggest concern was the 3 mile fetch that the allowed anchorage would be exposed to. The anchoring was very poor in the SE, with coral and bommies everywhere, but it was definitely a safer spot. If we did drag we had miles to react rather than the tight lee shore of the approved anchorage. This decision did not make us popular with the head ranger, but we felt we had no choice for the safety of our boats. In the end I don’t think we saw over 35 knots, but I personally would make the same decision again.
We spent about 6 months in the Gambier between two visits, which was enough time to start to make some connections and get to know people a little bit. Herve and Valerie on the island of Taravai nurture these relationships with sailors, warmly welcoming everyone who drops anchor behind the reef.Eric and his family became near and dear and when tragedy struck (Tina was lost at sea in August of this year), we grieved together.
We learned our way around, becoming comfortable with how things worked with the supply ships, buying gas in 200L barrels and negotiating to pump diesel straight from the boat. We got used to the idea that it was nearly pointless to try to get an internet connection, even in town.
We got to know some of the people along the water in Rikitea’s harbor:
Mike the fisherman and his wife, Agnés, the school teacher, offered us fresh fish and tried to organize an excursion outside the reef with Marcus, but the timing never seemed to work out.
Vaitea, the guy at Jo Jo’s (the ‘magasin’ or market) who made key resources manifest when there were supposedly none and was the recipient of multiple loaves of banana bread.
Louison, the body builder who rented us extra scuba gear – always laughing and smiling, paddling his Va’a in the harbor, delivering us tanks and gear wherever, whenever.
Eric’s sister-in-law, Juanita, and her friend Tao who drove us around the island in search of fresh fruit and invited us into their homes with open hearts.
Tehoto, who grew up on Kamaka island, who’s wife, Noella runs the pizza place, which is sometimes open on the weekend, depending on what else they have going on, allowed us on his private island, sharing his haven with us.
Iolanie rented us her car for a couple island excursions and stored our bikes in her front yard and later, in her store and would accept nothing in return.
Josie and her husband from Las Vegas ran one of the magasins and they volunteered to bring us veggies out to our anchorage about 8 miles away, as they were going by to a nearby motu (island) anyway … and this on Christmas Eve!
And then there were the cruisers, considerably more this year than last, who sought refuge from inclement weather in these eastern Polynesian waters, namely cyclones. A comradery naturally developed as we ended up seeing the same boats around the islands. We sat out a tropical depression at Herve and Valerie’s place in Taravai with a handful of other cruisers and were all poised to help out our neighbors as need be. The community of sailors is one of the highlights of this nomadic lifestyle and generosity, much like in the local culture, is a ‘given’ concept and knows no bounds.
Over two seasons, we covered most of the waters that comprise the Gambier, and yet it was hard and strange to leave knowing we would probably never make it back to this beautiful, remote Archipelago apart from the world.
Accomplished in Papeete thus far: (working list of paradise offsets!)
Wash Allora with fresh water for the first time in a year (Diana uses a toothbrush for her part)
Polish and wax cabin, and dodger
Inspect and put new seizing wire on anchor swivel
Clean and replace anchor markers
Adjust valves on Yanmar engine
Clean heat exchanger Yanmar
Replace coolant Yanmar
Check belts, hoses and impeller Yanmar
Install new AIS antenna and cable, solder new UHF connection
Dismantle, clean and relube primary winches
Update firmware on multifunction navigation displays
Clean Namo with fresh water for the first time in a year
Replace D ring on Namo
Wash Allora with fresh water for the second time in a year
Climb and inspect mast
Drill rivets and remove lower shrouds
Replace lower shrouds (one broke a strand sometime since May)
Update software on iPads
Update software on Diana’s Mac
Update software on Marcus’ Mac
Replace battery on Marcus Mac book pro (new battery shipped from France)
Update Iridium Go!
Rum and Whiskey provisions for 9 months
Acquire and consume as many pamplemousse as possible
Purchase dive tanks and dive gear, BCD’s and regulators
Install straps and bunnies for new dive tanks
Marcus’s bike to shop for replacing corroded gear ship cables and brakes
Clean, polish and wax Allora port side
Finish windlass rewiring/waterproofing
Rum tasting on Adagio also with friends from Reverence
Build seat for mast climbing rig
Umpteen bike trips to the store to provision
Stow provisions for nine months!
Clean mast to lower shrouds. Polish.
De-rust middle and upper shrouds.
Clean and scrub cockpit cushions
Clean and scrub cockpit seats
Install wheel holder for removing wheel from helm
Sundays 0600 market provisioning X4
Lubricate head (this is one of Marcus’s favorite jobs)
Clean helm bag
Scrub decks with boat soap and fresh water for third time in a year
Multiple doctor appointments
Charge rechargeable batteries
Charge handheld VHF radios
Clean, polish and wax Allora starboard side
Clean Bimini and connector panel with fresh water for the first time in a year
Replace dorade gaskets
Edit photos for blog (the font should be larger on this one to reflect the magnitude of the task)
Provide copy for blog
Factory service for Yamaha outboard
Go through Aft cabin for disposable items
Go through fwd cabin for disposable items
Dispose of propane tank
Sell (or actually give away) kite surfing board
Clean fishing gear
Communicate via Skype with loved ones for the first time in months
Write emails complaining about destructive ferry wakes in Papeete harbor
Read first set of rejection letters on Slocum novel
Repair and re-bed shock connection freezer with 5200
Empty and clean freezer and refrigerator
Replace shock on freezer, and refrigerator
Empty and clean refrigerator
Rinse running rigging with fresh water
Exchange propane tank
Install new organization system for refrigerator
De-rust and replace washers on all hatches
Disassemble broken Lewmar clutch and investigate repair options
Order more fly tying materials
Order new butt section and new rod to replace broken nine weight
Swab decks final (fourth) time to remove grime just before leaving Papeete
Upload 8-9 new blog posts
Scrub window UV covers
Wash folding bikes
Fabricate dive flag buoy
Laundry, laundry and more laundry (dry on lifelines)
Finish cleaning the mast, checking fasteners, de-rusting
Plant herb garden! (Thanks to Birgit/Pitufa for the inspiration and AK/Pensive for some key supplies!)
Cross things off this list (thanks, Ian, how could I have forgotten the most fun task?!)
We are currently in Oponohu, Moorea awaiting a weather window to head south to the Austral’s, so the chore list grows, (clean waterline, PFD zipper repair, etc.) – but we are also exploring some of the dive sites on this north side, WITH OUR OWN GEAR!!
Aka Marlon Brando’s atoll, aka where Obama went to write his memoirs, aka the weekend get away for Tahitian royalty for hundreds of years before those two. This is a difficult atoll, not very often visited by sailors. There is no pass to get your sailboat inside the lagoon, so you have to find a place to be on the outside, which means that conditions have to be just right. There’s a bay on the southern side, but the prevailing swell in these parts is south, and it has to be less than a meter and a half, or it’s just not tenable. The trade winds are east-southeast, so those have to be mellow too. The other big, big problem is that it’s super deep right off the reef. There’s not really a place to anchor. Charter operations out of Papeete have put in five mooring balls. Only one of those is really good for overnight, and if the conditions are right, the charter boats are guaranteed to be using them. We sailed in from Makatea unsure if we were going to be able to stay. In fact we had to plan our schedule so that we arrived in the early morning. Then, if we had to move onto Tahiti, we’d be able to get there before too late in the day.
As we approached after an overnight sail from Makatea, we could see two charter boats already arriving. Our only choice was to motor up to the catamaran that was unloading his guests to take ashore and ask if we could use one of the other moorings.
Now it’s really easy to imagine the response you might get to such a request in much of the rest of the world. Even a polite, sorry, these are private buoys would not be surprising. Less polite, not surprising either.
Obviously, we got an altogether different response. The captain of this catamaran had twenty or thirty guests that have paid $150 each to get there and were lined up to get ashore. He’s a one man show, from running the boat to making sure everyone has a life jacket. So he’s a bit busy. Nonetheless, without hesitation he pointed to the closest buoy and said, that’s the one you want. We asked are you sure, not one of the others, no that’s ours and it’s the best one. Can we stay the night? Absolutely, no problem. His name was Moana.
After he ferried all of his charge ashore he came over to talk. Remember the thing about Tetiaroa is THERE IS NO PASS. Meaning, no break in the reef that will allow you to sail to the protection inside. That includes shore boats. Marlon Brando and Obama got there by airplane. The only way to get ashore is to time your approach with the waves and surf your dinghy across the reef. When the surf is out, there’s a three feet wall of coral wall to slam into. This is what we’d been watching Moana do – dinghy runs with his guests. Seriously, it took our breath away. Obviously, it was possible. No doubt centuries ago Tahitian royalty were paddled across the same section of reef by young, strong paddlers. Moana offered to take us in, but he was leaving at 2:00 (we preferred more time on the inside), so we decided to launch Namo (our dinghy) and go for it. We went over to ask for tips and instead of letting us just try it, he took me in his dingy and showed me how to surf across. The key is to line up with a palm tree that has no top. The other key is that the waves roll along the reef so you can see them coming and gun it at the right time. It’s too late to just wait for the water to cover the reef, you have to be going full speed by that moment. Then to get out, the key is to know which coral heads you might hit with your propeller if you don’t aim right. Spot them, then gun into the white water of the breaking surf.
So we did it, surfed in with Moana cheering us on. Basically, you get across the reef and land in a pool, then if you turn hard right you can wind your way through the coral heads and tie off on shore. It’s also possible, but very complicated, to wind your way along the royal Motu (small island) and into the lagoon. We opted for anchoring Namo up at the spot where Moana left his guests and walking around the motu (the opposite way from which he took his clients) into the lagoon.
And what did we find there? Huge bonefish, as big as I’ve caught anywhere. Diana got lots of pictures. It’s illegal to fish inside the lagoon, but catch and release bonefishing is allowed. However, all of the charter companies have signed an agreement NOT to bring fishermen. So the only way, other than the way we did it, to fish in Tetiaroa is to go the the hotel. Where Obama went. Yep, $4,000 per night, not including airfare, for the cheapest room in the off season.
The next day another charter boat showed up. A smaller, private charter, same company, POE Yacht charters. They took the same buoy as the other captain had, but then once he’d off loaded his guests he came over to tell us that he needed the buoy we were on for the night. Once again, sorry sir, but this is a private buoy, you need to get lost. Right? Nope. He said that since this was the only safe buoy for overnight (capable of holding five boat in deep water off the reef), we could tie up to him and be his guest. He also offered to ferry us across the reef, and if we wanted we were welcome to come on the tour. When we asked if his guests would mind, he suggested that it was his choice and they wouldn’t mind anyway. These very friendly people were there to celebrate a daughters 25 birthday, so other than some Karaoke late into the night who could possibly complain?
I took him up on the ride in because Diana had discovered that the best snorkeling was on the outside reef edge anyway, plus, the sharks we’d been seeing circling Allora were Lemon Sharks, which we hadn’t seen before. Diana cannot resist swimming with sharks. While I was away, doing what I do, a mother and calf humpback whale swam right by the boat. Diana was so torn about whether to grab a camera, get snorkeling gear and a wet suit, or what, that she wasn’t able to get in the water with them before they passed, but she had a wonderful close encounter anyway.
We were so reluctant to leave the next morning, but the swell was up, and the forecast was for building southeast wind… time to sail for civilization. In case you’re there already and don’t quite realize, civilization equals ice cream, chocolate and internet. Not to be taken for granted. Especially since we were completely out of coffee, too.
Our first instinct, on our initial pass through the Tuamotus last year, was to avoid Rangiroa. It seemed too popular – with actual hotels for tourists, including those ‘elegant’ thatched roof bungalows out over the water that plague Bora Bora. But on our second pass this year, we ended up spending a month in this largest of the Tuamotus atolls.
I’ll keep my part of the motivation for staying so long to one sentence: Rangiroa has the best bonefishing in the Tuamotus. Okay, moving on. Okay, well maybe not moving on. I broke both my nine and eight weight rods on these fish. I used up my entire stock of number 4 hooks. I fished everyday, and there were bonefish wherever we went, even at the touristy Blue Lagoon. We’re not talking armies of tourists, lets say a couple dozen for a whole day in three or four small boats. One group even waved me over and fed me lunch. The tour operator was an avid fisherman and pure Polynesian friendly. He told about a spot where he’d seen a giant bonefish, so big that at first he’d mistaken it for a shark.
Unfortunately, I never got over there. The wind shifted and we had to pull up anchor – which is a short sentence for describing a pretty harrowing situation where our anchor windlass failed, and we had to untangle the anchor from some nasty bottom, manually, and then with a little luck and jimmying of the windlass control, we raised the Rocna, just as the waves and wind built in earnest. Fortunately, we figured out the wiring problem at the next anchorage and it was an easy repair. ~MS
Anyone watching us might have wondered what we were up to, bouncing back and forth between the anchorage off of Rotoava and a spot near the north pass of Fakarava. Part of the story is that you need winds with some north in them to be able to sit by the pass comfortably. There’s a nice public buoy by the channel marker and the snorkeling there is pretty awesome. Diana became quite familiar with its retinue of sharks and one particularly friendly triggerfish. I liked the spot because it’s a jumping off point for going to the far northwest corner of Fakarava. This is a nature preserve area, so no anchoring allowed. It’s about a five mile dinghy ride, but a pretty cool spot with some really nice fishing. Diana explored with me the first time, and I did the 10 mile round trip a few more times on my own. I brought a VHS radio in case I had any problems. Occasionally, a few boats brought tourists from visiting cruise ships to a place out that way they like to call the blue lagoon (every atolls got to have one). It’s a pretty spot and they bring lunch. I was lucky this time that they did, or not lucky depending on how you look at it. While I was off wandering across the endless flats in search of bonefish, one of these tour operators spotted Namo anchored by the shore of one of the motus. Apparently, he could not think of a single earthly reason that anyone would park a dinghy in that remote spot (not by the blue lagoon). So while I was out of sight, he “rescued” Namo and towed her away. It’s true that if one of the sailboats in Rotoava lost a dinghy this is where it would float to. Lucky for me there was still one other tour operator in the area, though it was a bit of hike to get to them. He was able to get one cell phone call out before he lost the signal, and after about an hour of chit chatting with the cruise ship passengers, Namo reappeared with the apologetic tour operator at the helm. ~MS