A Tour de Tuamotus

The day we left Tahiti was the day my sister was getting married. It was October 10th and we were up early to fill our tanks with diesel and water. The plan was to head to Tahiti Iti, spend a night there, then carry on to the Tuamotus. I called Samantha that morning while I still had good service. I was sad to be missing her wedding. I had missed the wedding of my step brother Craig the month before and now I was missing hers. I don’t think I expected to miss the weddings of two siblings while I was sailing and missing my sister’s hit me with extra weight. On the phone with her I asked how everything was going. How was her 16 month old daughter Kaia taking the affair? Apparently she was unamused by the lack of attention that she’d grown accustomed to. My voice cracked and tears threatened my eyes as I expressed my regret for not being there. I told her that I hoped the day would be everything she ever hoped for. I hung up shortly after. She was getting make up done and carrying on would render the endeavor useless. We left the dock moments later, motored out of the lagoon and headed south in the lee of Tahiti.

Tahiti a very large island, the largest in French Polynesia, and the dramatic peaks of its mountains are regularly obscured in clouds. Sharp ridgelines covered in vibrant green tropical foliage cascade down from the clouds to meet turquoise waters. A white line of breakers separates the glowing shallows of the lagoon from the azure of the surrounding ocean where we floated in the still air, puttering south.

Tripp was looking at the wind predictions while I was lost in thought about missing Samantha’s wedding and the forecast showed that it might actually be a good day to push on and head straight for the Tuamotus. There was a window of lighter air which is what you want when you’re heading East, the less resistance the better. Thus, what was supposed to be a six hour cruise suddenly became our multi-day departure from the Society Islands. It was the right choice, our November departure date was quickly approaching and the conveniences of Tahiti can prove very sticky. Plus, the rule when heading East is to always take the windows you’re given. So we steamed on.

We were finally able to raise the sails as we neared the bay between Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti. All the wind that builds up behind the peaks of the two islands ends up forced over the low lying isthmus that connects them. Suddenly we were in 20 knots and lively seas. The fresh water bath that J. Henry and it’s crew had gotten that morning became a distant memory, all parties getting a thorough drenching in salty waves as last minute jack lines were run on deck. Squalls stacked up ahead in the lee of Tahiti Iti — we were on our way. It was gusty and a bit of rain fell, but we were able to dance our way between squalls and the clouds cleared enough for us to admire the largely uninhabited small island of Tahiti.

While the northern side of Tahiti Iti, the small island, had towns and shops and roads there was a point where all of that ended and the island opened up to the vast wild expanse that it has been since it first bubbled out of the water and plants set their roots. Tahiti Iti is supposed to be spectacularly beautiful and there are trails that traverse its undeveloped wonder but we hadn’t had the opportunity to explore it. Looking at it now from the water I imagined the awe and isolation one must feel on the steep slopes of those wild peaks. Startlingly narrow spires adorned the ridgeline like wizard hats complete with their own mystical magic. It felt like a rare glimpse into the eyes of the first Polynesians who found these islands by sea, all the potential and mystery of the unexplored hanging thick over the jungle and the rocky outcroppings.

The sun was nearly set when we rounded the southern tip of the island. We were back in steady wind and making good speed. Our destination was Rangiroa. The largest atoll in French Polynesia, Rangiroa sat roughly 200 miles to the North/Northeast of Tahiti. When the sun had finally set we tacked to head north, we’d hold that course for the next 40 hours or so. It hadn’t been since our Pacific crossing in March that I’d spent more than one night at sea and it hadn’t been since our trip from Bermuda to Antigua that we’d sailed multiple days upwind. A new chapter had truly begun. It was nice to be back on the water in earnest, the wind was fighting us though. Initially our projected vector had us sneaking between Rangiroa and it’s western neighbor Tikehau, the perfect setup for an entry into the pass. However, as time ticked by the wind pushed our course further and further west, reminding us that we are truly at its mercy. It became clear that rounding Tikehau would be necessary and that added time to our trip. The two day sail that had grown out of a six hour sail was now looking more like a three day sail. To complicate matters, that delayed schedule also called into question our stop in Rangiroa at all. You must coordinate your arrival to atolls with the right tides. The passes that allow you to traverse from open ocean to calm lagoon can be notoriously exciting. Strong currents flow through these often narrow channels and waves tend to stack up as a result. To avoid the worst of these conditions it is best to cross these passes at slack tide when they are the calmest. It was unclear with our new timeline whether we’d near the pass close enough to slack tide. If we we arrived at peak tide it would likely make sense to forgo Rangiroa entirely and instead head farther east to Fakarava. And thus the six hour sail that had grown to a two and then a three day sail was showing signs of growing larger still.

All of this posed an interesting challenge. We were we reacquainting ourselves with a watch schedule, which inevitably leads to less sleep in the first days before you’re body can attune to the new pattern. We were also reacquainting ourselves with upwind sailing which presents a number of challenges: it’s wetter, louder, bumpier, slower, and the boat is heeled over at a significant angle. This last bit takes getting used to, even if you’ve acclimated to it before. Minor tasks such as pouring water, walking, peeing, etc., all require another level of coordination and skill. Cooking a meal can be very interesting as knives and ingredients meander about the galley with the motion of the boat. Even sleeping takes thought, special pillow placement, and nuanced technique. Meanwhile, as we adjusted to these physical aspects of our lives, we were faced with the mental challenge of a sail with no discernible end. When and where we would make landfall was up in the air, only time would tell and time was moving slowly. I’ll admit, the combination of everything took its toll on me. As night three approached I felt worn thin, not necessarily defeated, but run a little ragged. The thing that kept me going was gratitude that this upwind slog was not the start of a two month battle east, like our initial route had called for. I was looking forward to our first opportunity for landfall.

When we had just passed north of Tikehau we decided to tack back to the southeast to sail below the atoll and position ourselves for another tack north between Tikehau and Rangiroa. The low lying atolls have the benefit of calming the seas but not dousing the wind when you’re in their lee so we had a peaceful night sail on calm waters. The timing was looking optimistic too, our estimates were showing that our arrival would line up fairly close with slack tide.

By 7:30 the next morning we were a mile outside the pass and slack tide was moments away, things had lined up quite well. I’d heard a lot about the passes and my anticipation had been growing all morning as the tops of Rangiroa’s palm trees rose out of the Pacific. The Tuamotus were labeled as the Dangerous Archipelago on many of the first seafaring maps of the South Pacific. The islands just barely poke out of the sea, nothing more than scrubby sandbars resting atop giant sea mounds made from the exoskeletons of corals. This makes them nearly impossible to spot until it’s too late, if you’re not expecting them. Even if you are you have to get awfully close to see them. You can feel as if you’re in the middle of the ocean when in reality you’re just miles off shore.

Atolls may be the quintessential tropical island that one thinks of when they imagine such things. Bright blue water, coconut palms, white beaches, they have it all. Their finest feature is the lagoon within. It is almost like a placid lake in the middle of the ocean. Once you’re through the pass you leave the dark ocean waves and breakers behind and are left with glassy, light blue waters. The lagoons are full of corals, fish, sharks, and invertebrates. These atolls are little pockets of calm teeming with life. How they’re formed is actually still up for debate. The long-standing explanation proposed by Darwin as he explored the atolls of the South Pacific was that undersea volcanoes arose out of the water and over millions of years subsided back in to the ocean. Afterwards only the fringing reef was left and it grows, keeping pace with sea level rise, and forms a ring. This is the explanation that you’ll find in textbooks and is the widely accepted theory, but recently there has been doubt cast on this explanation. Another theory that is gaining steam is that atolls are aquatic plateaus that are the result of millions of years of growth from corals and calciferous algae. These plateaus existed just below the surface of a fairly stable sea level until about 500,000 years ago when a series of ice ages and subsequent thaws changed the sea level drastically multiple times over a relatively short amount of time, geologically speaking. In the periods when the sea was lower the plateaus emerged above sea level. Falling rain would pool in center of the plateaus and erode a bowl like depression in the center. When sea levels raised again corals grew back on the tops of the plateaus. Those plateaus, now with a slight bowl in the middle, are then exposed again when sea levels drop and the process repeats. As this cycle occurred repeatedly over the past 500,000 years the bowl-like depression became more and more pronounced while the edges continue to grow via corals and thus an atoll is formed.

Regardless of how atolls are formed, Rangiroa is a large one. The island stretched out toward either horizon as we neared the rushing rapids of the pass. We revved the engine with full sails up, using everything we had in our arsenal to keep forward movement against a raging tide. On either side of J. Henry large waves rolled and frothed, crested and crashed. We held steady in the calmest slice of water that snaked toward the left side of the narrow pass. As the motus closed in on either side of us the waves calmed but the current still raced against us. Off port side a man stood on a pier, his fishing rod was doubled over as he reeled something large out of the swift water. Off starboard a large sailboat lay washed ashore, a victim of the pass perhaps. Now, ahead, the lagoon. In my head I’d imagined a glorified swimming pool with palm trees fringing the edges. Large but knowable from any point within. The reality was water spanning the horizon in a full 180 degrees. The only discernible difference between what lay ahead and the ocean behind was the flat water and the depth — which you could see in the kaleidoscopic shades of blue that marked the presence of shallows and giant coral heads.

Though the water was flat the current still fought us for a time as we made our way to anchor. I drank in the excitement of my first landing in the Tuamotus, I’d been hearing about the Tuamotus since my return to French Polynesia and it was nice to finally experience them for myself. Everyone spoke with such enthusiasm about these islands and all I could do was nod and listen again how incredible the sea life is and how beautiful the islands are. It was almost like your friend in college who studied abroad for a semester and could not stop telling you how much better things were in España. “The ham…oh my god! And the wine?! Oh, and everyone takes siesta in the afternoon, I think the way of life is so much more refined there…” …you get the point. Safely in the lagoon a bit of relief began to settle in that the timing had worked to stop in Rangiroa.

As we anchored we abided by the unspoken code in the Tuamotus — very careful selection of a sandy spot to drop anchor followed by attaching floats to your anchor chain so that it does not drag on the sea floor and damage the abundant coral. The fact that everyone follows these customs is a tribute to the awe that the islands inspire. This should be common practice in any anchorage that is home to corals but here it is nearly a mortal sin to do otherwise. A thumbing your nose at such majestic and fragile beauty is surely deserving of retribution. Even at anchor you can sense the difference in the Tuamotus, if you throw so much as a grain of rice off the boat you’ll instantaneously have a swarm of color and splashing water at the spot that the morsel hits the surface. Large tropical fish and Black Tip Reef sharks are a common site near boats as they hang out waiting for scraps. In most other anchorages I’ve been to in the world it is a rare and charming experience to catch a glimpse of sea life from your boat. A fish here and there, rays, sharks, turtles, even a salt water crocodile once. Each one of these experiences are special but not a one can compete with the absolute tour de force that is anchoring in the Tuamotus. You might as well be floating in an aquarium and the most spectacular aquarium you could imagine at that.

Nearby a gorgeous boat caught our attention — sweeping classic lines, beautiful wood work, a definite eye-catcher. When her stern drifted our way we saw the name Celeste, a familiar name. Turns out Tripp had been put in touch with Celeste by a friend from quarantine in Hiva Oa. Celeste and her crew were from Hawaii and had been providing us with a bit of intel on what it’s like to keep a boat there ever since our plans had changed. Before long, the couple rowed over to say hello for the first time in person and invite us for dinner aboard Celeste that night. This little world is strange like that. Just when we thought we’d left all of our friends, we pull into an anchorage hundreds of miles away to find new ones. We accept the invitation despite being a little rundown from the passage.

With that we went to shore to check out the village. Rangiroa was fairly developed as far as Tuamotus go. There were two “snacks” (restaurants), two small grocery/general stores, a number of small hostels, and a large cement pier for the cargo ships that are the life blood to these islands. We stopped into the more inviting grocery store to see what we could find. The building was a large corrugated metal structure with high ceilings. Florescent lights, high above, lit the dusty cement floor and the maze of narrow aisles that crisscrossed it. The shelves were lined with canned and dry goods, mainly from China. Potted meats and fish, canned vegetables, large sacks of rice. Very little was available in terms of fresh foods beyond eggs and the obligatory baguettes. It had probably been a bit since the last supply ship came in. Along with the food was all manner of random items. Small toys in Chinese packaging, kitchen supplies, plumbing parts, automotive goods, a large box that simply said “SUPER” accompanied by an assortment of seemingly unrelated images. There was often only one of each item and they were arranged somewhat haphazardly. It was the kind of store you can spend hours in, marveling at the strange new foods and all the odds and ends. I’ve always felt that grocery stores are a fascinating window into a culture. What we eat and consume says so much about who we are and a grocery store usually reflects those demands. The stores on the Tuamotus are fascinating for a different reason though. There is evidence of cultural demand in the staples that you’ll find at every store — beer, rice, Asian flavors like soy, fish sauce, and curry — the difference here is what you don’t find. These island have an abundance of coconut and fish and other food sources that don’t require a store. This creates a grocery store that is less a reflection of the people and more a reflection of something else. Many of the things on those shelves had a thick layer of dust on them as they sat waiting for the off chance that someone would have a use for them. It created an odd ambiance in the store, like you were in the messy shop of a mad tinkerer, with parts and pieces strewn about.

A few days later the mechanism behind this puzzle became a bit more clear. Early in the morning the plucky supply ship “Dory” pulled into town. A mass of people crowded on the pier with excitement. The crane began unloading small containers and when their doors were opened they were laden with boxes and bags and crates. People lined up one by one to claim their packages and left with all sorts of items directly from the ship. I saw new luggage, shoes and clothing, garden and home supplies, and more. It seemed that anything a person needed would ship directly to them, eliminating the need for a store to carry a surplus of anything besides basic foods. My guess is that the curiosities lining the shelves of the grocery store were unclaimed goods from deliveries, either forgotten desires or the products of incorrect invoices, destined to gather dust.

We left the grocery and headed toward the ocean side of the village. I wanted to get a feel for these islands, understand their terroir. Rangiroa is almost overwhelmingly big so the task felt monumental, but I did what I always do in new places. I noted the plants and birds that surrounded me, the soil and the topography, the colors and textures. The ocean side had a brutal edge to it. The skies were gray and dull, the wind was strong. The ground was covered in large chunks of old corals, all the shapes and textures of a living reef but broken and gray and white, inhospitable for bare feet. The waves crashed on the living reef below and the ocean spray floated above low scrubby bushes and trees that clung to the shore. Large solitary Frigate Birds soared over head and smaller sea birds dashed here and there. There were very few buildings on this side, just a road that stretched the length of the island. We walked the road for a while. At places where the transition from land to sea was less severe small maritime forests would crop up. Some sort of coniferous evergreen that looked like a cypress loomed above the low bushes, joined by Coconut Palms and Tamanu trees. The dried pine needles on the ground with the sea nearby was reminiscent of home, but the exposed feeling of the open ocean persisted. The sky had been threatening rain as we walked and now it made good on the threat. Thick drops of rain started falling and we ran down a dirt road that crossed to the lagoon side to seek shelter. It was less than a mile across the island. Halfway across the rain lightened as we hid under a Coconut palm. Looking toward the lagoon we saw bright blue skies and calm waters and we decided to trade in for that over the moody outer edge of the atoll. The difference between the two shores was remarkable. Here along the lagoon you’d have no idea that a stormy horizon existed less than a mile away. There were more palms here. Bigger, fuller bushes lined the shore and orange vines crawled along the ground. Fished danced around corals in the calm waters and colorful sea shells lined the shore. That sprint across Rangiroa, fleeing the rain, may be the fastest I’ve ever moved between two worlds.

Back at the boat we rested and geared up for being social. We headed over to Celeste just before the sun set and enjoyed good company, conversation, and food. When you’re away from home, you can never underestimate the comfort of running into another American. We’ve met plenty of wonderful people that we share a lot in common with but the foundation of a shared culture provides a special kind of ease when you’re meeting so many new people and encountering so many new places and ideas. No matter what state they’re from or what they believe there’s an uncommon bond with an American that feels nice when you’ve been away from home. It’s a feeling that’s easy to forget when you’re home surrounded by other Americans, and it’s certainly not foolproof — you won’t get along with everyone — but it’s something you cherish when abroad for long stretches. The night with Celeste was one of those nights, jokes landed without explanation, cultural references were understood, body language and manners weren’t left to guess work. We left happy that we had accepted the invitation.

The next day we left for Fakarava. This island was one of the most talked about of the Tuamotus and I’d been eagerly anticipating it. It was known for it’s beautiful islands, pink sand beaches, friendly locals, incredible coral reefs and sea life, strange old limestone structures, and apparently, lightning fast fiber optic internet. Quite the list.

Rangiroa was drifting off on the horizon and the sun was nearly set when the familiar “thwack” of a toothpick snapping reminded us that we’d forgot to bring in the fishing line. We usually bring it in at dusk so that there’s no need to clean a fish on the side deck after dark. We prepared to roll the hand line in and release whoever was on the other end but as we pulled it became clear that this was no normal fish.

The sun set as we battled to pull the behemoth in and after about 30 mins there was a four foot yellowfin tuna next to our boat. I gagged it and heaved it into the boat, I’ve never seen a fish so large or so beautiful. With the side deck out of play we were left with the cockpit as the only option. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but of all the fish I’ve cleaned this one felt the most intense, the fish and it’s constituent parts were everywhere as we both set to carving the filets and steaks off the massive fish. We kept sailing as we worked and occasionally doused our headlamps and checked ahead for other boats. About two and half hours after the hook set the deed was finally done and we were well into the first watch of the night. We sat back, took a deep breath, laughed at our fortune, and ate some of the finest shashimi we’ll ever have.

We ate tuna for days, the fish weighed 80-100 lbs. We had already planned to make new friends by giving fish away, but the second failure of our fridge on the way from Rangiroa to Fakarava necessitated the generosity. It had only been two months since it was expensively repaired in Mo’orea. But we found willing and grateful takers for our excess.

It was hard to be bummed about the fridge in Fakarava. It had lived up to its esteemed reputation on nearly every count. The first day we roamed the island collecting shells and drinking coconuts as we headed toward an old “lighthouse” that looks similar to the stepped pyramids of the Americas. There’s strangely little information about the structure and it has been all but abandoned which adds an air of mystique. I read online that it’s somewhere around 100 years old and the age shows. Its large limestone blocks are wearing away and the tower is in visible disrepair. The site it’s on is overgrown and unloved. A small handwritten sign in front of it in French and Tahitian had a warning about climbing the lighthouse but nothing more. We stood at the base for a while, our curiosity unsatisfied. In the end we left knowing little about the lighthouse and had more questions than answers. But for whatever reason the visit and the lighthouse have stuck with me. The tower dominates the view from the northern village of Rotoava. Its dramatic architecture rises high above the coconut palms and implies an importance and a significance that there’s no other evidence for. No one seems really concerned about it’s existence, it’s just there. Maybe it’s the Polynesian version of the world’s biggest ball of yarn, an attraction for attraction’s sake? I don’t know, but I do know that I wonder about it often.

The next day we indulged in cruising luxuries — WiFi and laundry. Yachts services are a thriving industry wherever you find sailboats. They provide access to internet which is sweet and fleeting and they’ll often have food, laundry, trash collection, and more. Fakarava Yacht Services is particularly nice with very friendly hosts, excellent WiFi, comfy accommodations, and well priced laundry. There are few things sweeter than machine washed clothes after months of hand washing clothes with salt water and a bucket. While I’ll waited on my laundry I rented one of the bikes they had available and explored the island on wheels. There’s nearly 20 km of paved road running the length of the atoll and it’s a splendid bike ride. I rode to where the pavement ends and dove into the lagoon to cool off, then rode back to the yacht services to collect my laundry and make calls home on the WiFi. All in a day’s work.

As beautiful as the island is itself, the waters hold the unmatched treasures of Fakarava. While there I saw a humpback calf frolicking while it’s mother waited nearby patiently, I saw manta rays cruising gracefully, I saw massive schools of fish packed together tightly in the shape of one larger fish, I saw black tip sharks, white tip sharks, gray reef sharks. Fish of every color shape and size were in abundance — spotted groupers, trigger fish, angel fish, wrasses, too many to name. However, the most stunning part of all, and the foundation for all the other magnificence, was the coral reef. I have never seen anything like it. After snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean and much of French Polynesia I had seen quite a bit of coral, but I was always left imagining what the reefs must’ve looked like at their peak. Some took quite a bit of imagination. Fakarava took none. I get excited even writing about it. Everywhere you look, nearly 100% ground cover of healthy and diverse corals. Acres and acres of large, flourishing coral heads and nearly every nook and colorful cranny is filled with life. Fish and eels and sharks and invertebrates flow in and out of the incredible superstructure that lines the sea floor of Fakarava and it’s breathtaking.

There’s simply no way to describe it and what makes my heart ache is that it’s slipping away. I worry that I had the privilege of seeing something that soon won’t exist. I’ve already seen the desolation of previously grand reefs in the Caribbean and it’s only a matter of time before places like Fakarava follow suit. For all the healthy coral I saw, there was still evidence of bleaching events, namely the bright purple coral that corals turn when they’re on their last leg. The color is hauntingly beautiful but it means that with one more bleaching event those corals are gone forever. I want to take Joanna to see the wonder that Fakarava holds. I want you, reading this, to experience it, I want everyone to see it. Because never has the urgency felt greater to save our reefs than when I was witnessing reefs in their full magnitude. I’m just worried that there’s not enough time before it’s gone.

We left Fakarava in awe of the place and headed for an atoll that Tripp had visited on his way to Tahiti to meet me, Tahanea. Tahanea is a mostly uninhabited atoll but it is home to seasonal copra workers. Copra is essentially mature coconut that is dried and sent to factories where it is pressed for its oil. It’s a highly subsidized industry in French Polynesia and workers are paid far higher than market price demands. In return, shipping vessels have incentive to visit small islands they would otherwise pass and people who live on the islands have incentive to stay put versus heading to Tahiti to find a job. Even the uninhabited Tahanea gets a somewhat regular visit from a cargo vessel to pick up copra and they bring much needed goods to the workers in return.

When we arrived the atoll did, in fact, seem uninhabited and we set out to see what there was to see on the deserted islands. We explored the motus, cutting across their forested interiors and walking along their reef fringed exteriors. Gaff and machete in hand we wandered aimlessly, drinking coconut water to fuel the spirit of adventure. We had no destination and no goal. That kind of freedom, unbridled curiosity, and exploration outdoors brought out the kid in me. I had flashes to my childhood of wandering the maritime forests of Hilton Head with my brother, both of us on a mission with no clear objective, but on a mission nonetheless. I relished the feeling and embraced the spirit as we carried out our missionless mission in Tahanea. We found urchins and eels and sea stars and birds nests and more. We found nature and the joy that comes from immersing yourself in it.

There were a few other sail boats anchored nearby, one of which was a group of Aussies our age who had noticed our galavanting. They stopped by to see what we were up to. It turns out they too were on the hunt for local delicacies and had learned some lobster trade secrets from a local man named Miano. Lobster hunting was on our Tahanean-to-do list so we swapped info and promised to share any lobster we found. Tripp and I set out that night to the exterior reef of the island in search of lobster. It’s hard to think of a comparable experience to the exterior reef. You walk through knee deep water at night while ocean waves crash around you and you navigate a strange nocturnal garden of small pink and yellow corals adorned with bright green algaes. There are green parrot fish and black tip sharks swimming in the shallows with you, both of which dart off when your head lamp catches them. In theory there are also lobsters but we didn’t see any, let alone catch any. The Australians did manage to snag one and apparently Miano went out as well and found only two lobsters. His two lobsters came after claims of regularly finding 40 in a night though. Perhaps he’s prone to exaggeration or maybe it was just a bad night for lobstering. The latter makes our non-existent haul feel more acceptable.

We ended up being “stuck” in Tahanea for a week while we waited for the right weather window to head to Makemo. It was one of the slowest weeks in recent memory which made it rewarding in some regards and challenging in others. I recall thinking how unusual it was to have nothing pressing to do. There was no where to be, nothing that needed to be done, no one to see. Just Tripp and I and a ring of motus. That feeling is freeing and its a feeling that I think very few people actually get to sit with. Some days I swam. Other days I explored the islands. Other days I just read or listened to podcasts or napped and enjoyed the view. We just had to wait for the right wind to move on. The luxury to have that schedule is worth being grateful for but the waiting and the isolation was also a challenge. Just Tripp and I and a ring of motus, remember. We already spend an inordinate amount of time together, the remote Tahanea just amplified that time. There were no distractions or activities to keep the isolation at bay. I think both of us were ready for interaction with others, anyone else really. Not out of animosity, just out of the human need for varied social stimulation. Luckily the night before we left we found that in Tahanea.

The Aussies had a good haul while fishing that day and were going over to Miano’s house to roast the fish. They graciously invited us to come along. Miano’s home is labeled as a village on charts. And there are multiple buildings, including a church, on the site. But Miano lives there alone and works copra. His mental fortitude is clearly more geared to solitude and isolation than mine. Miano was a large man, strong and potentially intimidating, but he was gentle as a lamb. He was quick to laugh and smile and offered up his home and his hospitality willingly. His English was good and what did get lost in translation could be sorted out by an Italian on the Australian boat who also spoke French. Miano loved Bruce Lee, eating Coral Grouper, and his dog Sun, who he had rescued. He was amazed at the wealth of music that we had downloaded on our phones and said there wasn’t usually any music there in his village of one unless an infrequent visitor brought a guitar or ukulele. He was a splendid host and we had a great evening looking at the stars and talking about fishing and culture and life. It was just the social interaction we all needed. We left the next afternoon for Makemo, the last of the Tuamotus on our route.

We arrived to Makemo’s western pass just before sunrise on Halloween. Makemo is a long flat oval that runs almost directly east to west. Our end goal was the village on the east side, right next to the eastern pass. Over the next two days we slowly motored our way against the wind in the calmer waters of the lagoon. We made it to the village on a Sunday afternoon, the sleepiest time on an already sleepy Makemo. We had now gone almost two weeks with only one night of true social interaction. The wind was coming from the southeast which was a bad angle for this anchorage and the boat was hobby-horsing with vigor. There was no reason to leave the boat with the village shut down and the conditions didn’t lend themselves to leaving the boat for long anyway. So we sat that afternoon and the isolation sat heavy with us. We had high hopes of phone service in the village or access to WiFi. The phone service wasn’t working and all places with WiFi were closed. We tried to play cards to pass the time but the wind kept blowing away the cards and the constant rocking of the boat made it hard to focus. I don’t want to veer into the dramatic but my mind felt frayed on that day. The remoteness of these islands and the inability to connect with the outside world, or anyone for that matter, was manifesting as a pressure in my head. Fleeting thoughts danced through my mind wondering if I was close to breaking. I thought how pathetic it would be to snap under these conditions and was thankful I hadn’t found myself in a POW camp or somewhere similar in life. Looking back, it was simply a build up of social need that had no outlet. When sailing before there had always been other people to interact with, friends we’d made. But now it was just us and we’d spent the better part of the year together for nearly every moment. This happens on passages regularly but you have the sailing and the navigation to occupy your mind, you’re not stagnant. We were then, rocking there on the boat staring at each other.

Monday came with renewed promise of release from our isolation. We were able to get WiFi, go to the grocery store, talk with other people. The conditions in the anchorage hadn’t improved so we pulled to the pier in town and thereby established the Makemo Yacht Club which has only two members to this day. The small luxuries of that day had changed our outlooks drastically, and it was just in time for the one year anniversary of our departure. That night we looked back on the crazy year behind us and were grateful for everything that we’d had the privilege to see and experience. We acknowledged the hardships of the year, so many of which are still raging. We acknowledged the challenges for our friendship as we live out this wild and beautiful creation we crafted. We ended the night thankful.

We had a week in Makemo as we waited for the weather window for our sail to the Marquesas. The community there is wonderful. People offered up their tricycles when we went grocery shopping, people offered up their homes for internet and company, people offered fish they’d caught that day. David, who gave us three fish on three different occasions told us that the foundation of Makemo was love and that was evident. At night we’d watch the intermural volleyball games at the island’s rec center. The whole village was there and people laughed and cheered on the players even when the quality of play faltered. Makemo is a happy place.

The Saturday after we arrived in Makemo, we left. We had a 5 or 6 day sail to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, our landing spot for the Pacific crossing. It was the longest sail that either of us had been on for months and we were excited to get out to sea. David helped us slip our lines at the dock and we waved goodbye as we smoothly slipped out the eastern pass of Makemo’s lagoon.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close