Makemo, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

Passage planning in the Tuamotus adds a new constraint. We’re used to checking weather and planning arrivals and departures around daylight, necessary to see obstacles like coral heads in the water. But here, there are also passes in and out of atolls that concentrate tidal flow into strong currents, often faster than Villa’s little motor will overcome. That means we have to plan our exits and entries for slack water. All that to say, the 80 mile passage from Raroia to Makemo could have taken us fifteen hours, but we had to stretch it to 21. We took the first leg as normal, downwind with a poled out genoa. Then when we passed Taenga, we put up a double-reefed main and about a quarter of the genoa. Around 5am we dropped the main as well, because we were still doing over three knots and we needed to average closer to two. Otto the Autopilot was not a huge fan of this arrangement, both because Villa isn’t terribly well balanced with only a triangle of sail up front, and because he starts to feel nervous when there isn’t much water moving over the rudders.

As we approached the island, we had even more trouble slowing down because a squall increased our wind up to 25 knots for a while. Normally that’s enough wind for us to think about reefing, but we just had a little triangle of sail out, so all it meant is that we were moving faster. Still, the extra speed forced us to turn around and sail away from the island to eat up the time. Captain was salty about all of this.

We showed up at the entrance right about at slack tide and cruised right in. We took one look at the town anchorage, crowded with some eight boats, and sailed right on by. We dropped anchor some twelve miles west of the anchorage, where the atoll wall zigs north and provides some protection from the prevailing east winds. After only a little hunting, we found a gap in the scattered coral bommies big enough to drop anchor in, and took a picture of the storm and our one neighbor. When the sun came out, we snapped a drone shot of our spot…

…and settled down for a nice relaxing round of Time Stories. Captain isn’t big on learning the rules, but he does love dice.

In the morning we snorkeled among the shallow coral heads. There were a lot less fish than at Raroia, the coral was generally less vibrant, and we were glad we’d fought our way east. Still, water clarity was excellent, and the reflections off the top of the water were superb.

There were lot of schools of little fish in and around the occasional bit of healthy staghorn coral, like these blue …chromis maybe? We can’t figure them out. And the humbug dascylluses on the right.

There were a lot of bivalves: giant clams again, but also a lot of these “pacific pearl oysters” (notable because this is black pearl country, and pearl farms are one of the major navigational hazards). Also these little guys recessed into the coral which we think are some kind of scallop.

A shrimpgoby, we think, and an emperor angelfish.

These neon damsels are super bright blue and eye-catching. And they retain that damselfish ability to really scowl for the camera.

This juvenile pacific sailfin tang has huge fins, and yet when it turns sideways it’s almost invisible. See the sliver in the middle of the right-hand picture?

And of course, the inimitable Jazzfish. Plus, on the right, a pair of fish that turned out to be juvenile pacific bullethead parrotfish, possibly fighting or maybe kissing, we’re not sure.

In the afternoon, we pumped up the paddleboards, and decided that that was a much better way to experience this coral field. We saw a shark from above, keeping our shark-a-day streak going. And when the wind started to pick up, it brought us right back to the boat, because we plan ahead and paddle into the wind. We’ve been carrying these boards and rarely using them, though we had bought them with the Pacific in mind, and it felt really good to get them out and tour flat clear water from above.

We stowed the paddlebords in time for a lovely sunset. Captain came out to watch with us, of course.

We had heard that the passes are the place to find the richest sea life, so the next day, we set off towards the cut on the northwestern end of the atoll. As we hauled anchor, something gave out in the windlass and started making a grinding sound. Great. At least we got the anchor up. We had read about an anchorage near the pass, but when we got there, we couldn’t find a spot without coral everywhere. Captain objected to all the motoring.

We headed to the other side of the pass looking for a safer spot to drop, and eventually found one, where we floated our chain for the first time. But now we were on the west side of the atoll, without any protection from the waves kicked up by the wind from the east. And because we’d taken too long to find a spot, we’d missed the slack tide window to swim safely through the pass. Rather than wait another 24 hours for the right swimming conditions, we opted to take off in the evening slack window for a last-minute, and thus slightly painful, night passage to Tahanea. Manually lifting the anchor, of course.

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