Friday, June 24, 2016

Passage: Marquesas to The Tuamotus - 4 Days


The Tuamotu Archipelago (aka The Tuamotu), is also known as "The Dangerous Archipelago" because the 78 coral atolls' low-lying profiles makes the islands (motu) difficult to spot until a boat is within a few miles of them. There was a time when cruisers simply avoided The Tuamotu, but their remote beauty, regular tradewinds (think windsurfing and kiting), and crystal-clear diving now lure cruisers there every year. But even with the advent of modern navigation and info-sharing amongst cruisers this archipelago must be respected and carefully navigated. In fact, about a month ago a very experienced and well-sailed boat from this year's Pacific Puddle Jump fleet hit and was wrecked on one of the atolls. The four crew were saved by a French rescue helicopter but the boat was a total loss.

Visiting the Tuamotu(s) has been our dream for some years. There is some excellent kite-boarding inside the flat water atolls and we've heard that diving/snorkeling the lagoons and passes is world class. Most of the atolls have 1-3 passes through which water flows in and drains out. More on that later.

We originally intended to leave for The Tuamotu earlier, but the weather patterns have been very unstable and the weather in The Tuamotu has been very windy and rainy. However, listening to the radio nets it sounded like the weather down there might be improving and it looked like a decent weather window to make the 4-night, 540 mile journey south-west. So on June 12 we decided to prepare Cinnabar for an offshore passage and set sail from Nuku Hiva to Tahanea, an uninhabited coral atoll that is also a nature preserve (in part because it is the only place to find the rare Tuamotu Sandpiper).

Here are our passage notes:  (for the insomniacs and advanced enthusiasts)

Day and Night 1, June 13, 2016 - A Good Start
Our destination of Tahanea has a navigable pass that must be timed correctly in order to enter. The best times are low slack and high slack, with the most desirable being low slack in order to get a bit of incoming tide push. These are typically the least risky times to enter, otherwise the standing waves in the pass can be too treacherous to navigate and we must wait outside the pass. Low slack in 4 days will be at 07:48 (a.m.) and we will try to arrive exactly at this time in four days.

We've planned for a morning departure from Daniel's Bay (remember the gnats?), Nuku Hiva. Thankfully no gnats this time, but as we weigh anchor we are visited by a cloud of no-nos who tag us with a smattering of nasty bites as their farewell gift. We leave Daniel's Bay at 09:00 in a pleasant 12-14 knot breeze. The seas are confused (coming from different directions) but not horrible. We shutdown the engine after an hour and sail through the rest of the day and night. Overall it is a fairly mild day and evening, just perfect for us to get our sea legs back. The moon is half full and waxing, so we have a bright night sky until about 03:00.

Day and Night 2, June 14 - A Beautiful Night Sky
Winds and seas are calmer, 8-10 knots breeze on a beam reach. We have to motor sail part of the day but with the calmer seas I am able to do hand a hand-sewing repair on the foot of the jib while it is up and flying. We also drop the mainsail to apply some sail repair tape on the worst part of our delaminated sail. If it tears any more we'll have to sail with the main dropped to its 3rd reef (sail area reduced about 75%), but today it's calm enough to have the mainsail up all the way. Again, we are grateful for another easy day and night of sailing as we become accustomed to the routine of an offshore passage. We take turns working and resting throughout the day but our night shifts are more formally scheduled:
19:00 - 22:00 (7-10 pm) Tom
22:00 - 01:00 (10 pm - 1 am) Sylvia
01:00 - 04:00 Tom
04:00 - 07:00 Sylvia
When I get up for my 04:00 shift there are many falling stars in the north. Is it a meteor shower? I see several satellites traveling overhead and even see two Iridium flares (sun's reflection off the solar panels of an Iridium satellite) as the eastern sky begins to get light.

Day and Night 3, June 15 - From Heaven to Hell in one day
We hoist the spinnaker at 09:00! We find it's easier to drive the boat by hand instead of using the autopilot. We take turns driving and trimming, reminding ourselves that we have spent very little time flying a spinnaker doublehanded on this boat (a potential risky endeavor). Very fun in the moderate conditions! But in the distance big cumulus clouds are forming and we're concerned about the nighttime squalls. In the afternoon the spinnaker is put away and we reduce sail area in the mainsail in anticipation of deteriorating weather.

The midnight squall is rather benign but the 01:00 a.m. squall is a monster and it takes both of us at maximum effort to deal with the nastiness that ensues:
1) The autopilot is not able to drive the boat. I jump behind the wheel to steer as Tom prepares to come up on watch. It's raining so hard I can't even see the instruments so I don't know the exact wind speed, but it's very windy. I feel like I'm driving into a vortex of wind; no matter which way I steer we can't get out of the damn squall.

2) Somehow we reefed the mainsail so that one of the folds inadvertently captured about 200 lbs of pouring rainwater! How did that happen so quickly? We need to get the water out of there fast before it breaks something. I tell Tom to start poking holes in the sail to drain the water. We are getting a new mainsail anyway so we're less worried about a few holes than the heavy sail possibly damaging the dodger, breaking the boom or some other horrible thing. However, with the constant rain the sail keeps filling faster than the water can drain out. We push the boom over to one side, untie the most aft sail tie, and get out of the way as the raging river of water drains out of the sail and off the side of the boat. It takes both of us to push the sail back onto the boom and re-tie it, this time not as a funnel. Luckily the seas are fairly flat and the bright moon gives light even through the clouds, so it could be worse. The autopilot manages to keep the boat on track and into the wind with the help of the motor.

3) Meanwhile the force of the water in the sail breaks our lazy jacks (lines that keep the mainsail on the boom when we lower the sail). This does not surprise us but Tom has to quickly tie them up and out of the way lest they fall overboard and foul the prop, which would be VERY bad.

4) While working on the mainsail we notice the vang is not holding the boom up, so this will need service down the road. Maybe the weight of the boom burst the hydraulic seals? Another thing to fix. Tom finally takes the wheel and manages to steer us out of the squall into more stable weather.

5) I finally go down for some rest at 03:15 but wake up an hour or so later to see Tom quietly mopping the sink and counter of the galley, trying not to wake me. He tells me to go back to sleep, all is well and he'll update me when I come back up on watch. I later find out that somehow a siphon formed in the galley sink and while we were working ondeck gallons of seawater siphoned up into the sink, all over the counter, flowed down into the freezer and then drained into the bilge.

Day and Night 4, June 16 - Shifting Gears
Needless to say we are both a bit tired today. Miraculously none of the seawater that siphoned into our galley got into my beloved stove, but when I look inside the freezer a veritable glacier of seawater has formed inside. Not much we can do about it now, so will have to let it sit and deal with it later. It's very windy today but we need to troubleshoot the auto pilot to figure out why it can't steer to starboard when it gets windy. We heave to (stabilize the boat with a specific sail trim) so that it calms down and allows Tom to work on the problem. Also, we want to slow the boat down because we are going too fast and will arrive at our destination too early. We want to get there an hour before low slack so we can look at the pass through our binoculars and make sure there are no standing waves.

That night we want to play it safe so we lower the mainsail to its third reef and control the boat speed with the jib, all the while strategizing about our arrival time at Tahanea. The night is cloudy and sprinkly, but not nearly as severe as the previous night. It has been a day of shifting gears, trying to time our arrival for tomorrow early enough to make the pass at low slack tide.

Day 5, June 17 - Will We Make It??
It appears we have timed our arrival nearly perfectly for slack current. About an hour before low slack time, we observe from a distance (1/2 nm) that there are still some standing waves in the pass. We wait about 20 mins until the pass looks good, but as we approach to enter, rotten luck pays a visit. A 50 square mile squall blows down on us, bringing low visibility, 2 m seas, 20 kt winds, etc. and we have to turn around and reach back away from our destination. So close but yet so far! It takes the squall a good 45 minutes to pass before we return for our 2nd approach. We are now late for the slack current but using the binoculars, we observe favorable conditions (flat water, calmer winds, good sunlight). We decide to enter and head into the left middle of the channel with good engine power, reefed main, and a broad reach. We are relieved to notice a modest 1.5 kt positive push from the incoming current. With careful eyes on the depth sounder, water in front, and the chartplotters, we quickly make it through the channel with no issues. Once inside the lagoon it's still windy but the water is blissfully calm. We quickly find a spot to anchor before the fast approaching next squall hits. I'm a little freaked out because it looks like we're about to hit numerous coral heads scattered throughout our potential anchorage, but it's just that the water is so clear they only appear to be at the surface. Cool!

Approximately 4 days to the hour from our Marquesas departure we drop the anchor. We high five each other, we've finally made it to the Tuamotu!! The chasing rain squall immediately smacks us but we patiently endure its short duration. We're very excited about our arrival, so instead of napping as we should, we get all sorts of boat tasks done, including hand bailing 6 gallons of sink-overflow sea water out of a non-draining bilge compartment. In the afternoon we go for a snorkel and are impressed by the turquoise blue water, crystal clear visibility, and the abundant colorful reef fish. We're so glad to finally be here!

We see another boat in the anchorage whom we later meet (USUAL SUSPECT). Turns out they navigated into the lagoon via another pass, which they described as "gnarly", while our entry turned out to be flat, easy and a non-event. We're astounded that our lagoon anchorage is as calm as a marina while the maelstrom still rages outside.

Afternote: a couple of days later we watched a catamaran enter the same passage we entered, but during a time of adverse current and standing waves. I must admit that I got a bit worried when I watched them make no headway, get tossed about, and get swept toward the shallow reef before they were finally able to slowly claw their way into the lagoon (under full 2-engine power) 30 mins later. We saw first-hand that timing one's entrance can make a big difference.

More later about our activities inside this beautiful coral atoll.

Pic - Good Weather Draws Out The Spinnaker

Unlike when racing, the spinnaker only makes an appearance in light and settled weather on most shorthanded cruising sailboats. Too much downside risk of damage for the marginal gain otherwise. Besides, what's the hurry when one is a vagabond? Nevertheless, there's always a thrill when the boat is propelled along by a giant curtain of 0.75 oz nylon!

Pic - Dower and Dazed - Crew Expressions Captured at 3AM

Why not a 'selfie' during the graveyard watch while wrestling with squalls and breakages?

Pic - Tahanea Motu - First Atoll and Reef Pass

Here's a picture you'll never see in a travel brochure for French Polynesia and the "idyllic" So. Pacific. This is what it's really like - at times - like our arrival at our destination motu. We waited for a break between squalls to transit the pass into the flat calm waters of the atoll. They say that there has been much more of this type of wet and stormy weather in the Tuamotus so far this year (2016). ("Shoulda been here last year - the weather was sunny and great!")

Pic - Tahanea Middle Pass

Satellite image and Cinnabar's track to and into the atoll.
We anchored in 30' of clear water with a sandy bottom, good holding, and scattered bommies (coral heads). When the stormy weather cleared, this place revealed itself as a paradise: calm water, refreshing breeze, no bugs, no pollution, good diving, good exploring, very few people (a couple of other boats).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I Love A Rainy Night (Not Really, But That Song Is Stuck In My Head)

Worth getting wet for? You decide.

Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva

Friday, 27 May 2016 - Don't Get Between Sylvia and Her Happy Hour!

16:00 (4:00 p.m.) - Sylvia paces, she's thinking, nay obsessing about happy hour.

Sylvia: Tom, IMPULSIVE just dropped their dinghy*. When do you want to drop our dinghy to go to shore? You want to go to happy hour, right?

Tom: Ummmm...

Sylvia: You'd better not bail on me. I could have gotten a ride with IMPULSIVE.

*(Cruiser-speak for lowering the dinghy into the water. We like to lift it out at night to keep things from growing on the bottom.)

16:30 - A squall approaches, naturally.

Sylvia: Tom, it's time to drop the dinghy! You know I like to be be in the first taxi so I don't have to wait for everyone else to get served first. 

Tom: OK OK, I'm getting there.

16:40 - Dinghy is dropped into the water and raindrops start falling.

Tom: You want to go in this squall? Let's just wait 5 minutes for it to pass.

Sylvia: No, I don't want to wait. I like to get the first taxi and get served first.

(We get in the dinghy and the drops begin to fall.)

Tom: This is crazy.

16:50 - At the dinghy dock and it's pouring rain. We're drenched.

Tom: We could have waited 5 minutes.

Sylvia: I don't think this is a 5 minute squall. And you KNOW I like to get the first...

Tom: Yeah, I KNOW.

17:15 - Regular taxi bus is not available so a replacement diesel Toyota pulls up, open air in the back. Four seats available inside. Tom and I are numbers five and six.

For some reason we don't mind sitting on the wet seats in the back. And hooray we're in the first group! (And it's still raining.)

17:30 - Happy hour Chez Rose

Guess who got served first? Beers, rum punches, cheeseburgers and fries.

18:30 - Keikahanui Pearl Lodge

The rain has subsided. Because IMPULSIVE and CINNABAR were early we have time to walk up the hill to the deluxe Pearl Lodge for their happy hour. Their usually $14.00 (!!) drinks are half price. The hostess politely shepherds our damp group outside. 

I'm sure it's a beautiful view in the daylight but with no moon out we decide to enjoy people-watching the locals who have dressed up for a night out at the lodge's restaurant and bar. I can only imagine what they think about the soggy cruisers plopped down on the patio. But they are polite and don't stare...too much. Occasionally we even get a friendly "Bonsoir!"

Tom: Getting wet was the first time I've been cool all day. Do you think if I just stay wet all the time I'll get moldy?

Enjoying the good, damp life with Morris and Debbie (IMPULSIVE, who weren't that soggy)