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The Two Captains


2C Update #115
Fakarava Atoll, Tuamotus -- June 15-30, 2004

Weather, specifically bad weather, bracketed our stay in Fakarava like a set of parentheses. The two-day radio forecast we listen to every morning warned of strong winds from the northwest, so we and many other boats headed for the northern end of Fakarava atoll, the second largest of the Tuamotus. There the northern reef edge slants away to the southwest providing the best-looking protection from the northwest. When we actually arrived at the anchorage off the village of Rotoava ( 16*03'S; 145*37'W ) --just in time for the best sunset we have seen in the South Pacific--, there were only a couple of other boats, but by the end of the next day maybe fifteen had assembled, many of them fellow Puddlejumpers rushing northward from the atoll's southern pass.

Atolls are a mixed blessing in the protection department. While the motu-topped fringing reef encircling the lagoon keeps out the usual ocean waves, when the winds switch around you can find yourself with your back in a corner and plenty of fetch inside the atolls for waves to build.

And that's exactly what happened to all of us tucked so carefully up at the north end. That two-day forecast made no mention of the fact that the winds would proceed to back right round the compass, from N to NW to W to SW! After one night of protection, the wind blew 20-30 knots from our exposed side for two to three days. Seas built up to four feet setting the boats rocking and bopping like hobby horses while our anchor chains wound up around coral heads 50' feet down. Several boats had their snubbers snap when the coral stole their catenaries (the sagging stretch of anchor chain that acts as a shock absorbers), and several others had their dinghies popped when they got yanked into their stern steering vanes. One European boat actually took himself inside the brand-new rectangular concrete basin of the quay, only to find when the wind and waves switched that he was trapped in a washing machine! He did us all a service, because no matter how uncomfortable things got out at anchor, all we had to do was glance his way at his mast whipping back and forth like a metronome to feel better about our own situations.

Tackless II actually came through all the weather pretty well. She's a heavy old boat and therefore bucks the waves at a more tolerable rate. We got chafe gear in place and a back-up snubber on early in the game, and we lucked out that our coral head wind-ups never brought us up short. The worst thing that happened to us is that we actually got a splash of seawater through the aft cabin portholes!

But it was irritating to be confined to the boat! This is ironic, because we can normally sit happily on the boat for days on end without feeling restless. However, we had signed up for a scuba dive with the local shop for the very morning the bad weather hit!

Rotoava was a very pleasant village. A fair step up from Kauehi, it was big enough to have a paved road, a couple of eateries, a dive shop, several hotels and pensions, two groceries and its own bakery (in Kauehi village the baguettes had come in frozen!) As the weather settled down, the cruisers could be found packing baguettes, enjoying soft serve ice cream or steak frites at the harbor Snack, pedaling around on rental bicycles, and diving for pearls at one of the local pearl farms.



Or they could be scuba diving. Don and I finally made our scuba date with Te Ava Nui "Centre de Plongée"( www.divingfakarava.com ) three days late. We had decided to spend the bucks to go with the local shop because the Garue Pass, around which most of the sites in the north end were situated was a long four miles away - much easier to ride there in the shop's high speed dive boat. The best known dive is the Garue Pass Dive itself, a deep drift dive that the shop would not take people on without seeing them on an easier dive first. For me, still plagued by anxieties about recurring DCS (decompression sickness) symptoms (see Update #77), I was looking for a shallower dive anyway, so the first dive to the outer wall was more my speed.


Shallower my ***. Obviously the French have different feelings about depth than Americans! They briefed a depth of 20 meters, and then promptly ignored that, getting as deep as 90 feet. They use these 100 cu ft steel tanks that last forever but are incredibly heavy. Even though I had dropped half the weight on my belt I was uncomfortably over-weighted, which made trying to maintain a shallower depth over top all the other divers a bit of a struggle. However, grousing aside, the dive was impressive. The visibility was well over a hundred feet. The "wall" - really more of a steep bank - was clothed in short hard corals, all in pristine condition. There were lots of bright tropical fish, including our first Napoleon wrasse, a bulky fish some four long with a big humphead and a disturbingly-human expressiveness. To me, the Napoleon was the real herald of being in South Pacific waters.

But the star of the dive was the ten-foot manta. When the divers first dropped down, the manta was sighted way off in the deep water and the videographer scooted down there to film him. There were also a few sharks (the motto of this shop is "Every dive without a shark is free!") down with the manta. But later, on the return pass on the reef crest, when all the other divers were back up with me, we looked up to see the manta gliding right towards us! Now the Two Captains have seen a manta or two here and there. In the Virgins, they were very rare and always small. In the Galapagos, they were big shadows seen through the murk. In Cocos they seemed to love to slide under the dinghy but disappear the moment you tried to get in. And in the Sea or Cortez most of them were the tiny, popping mobulas. So, really, this was our first big manta, up close and in good viz. She (after looking at the video back in the shop, the pros decided it was a pregnant female!) described circles and loops around the group for a whole half hour, and of course, the videographer was still there to record it all. Needless to say, we got suckered into buying the video.

Don went back in the afternoon to do the deep, drift shark dive in the Pass with another cruiser, and it seems I didn't miss much. Being as we were at the low point in the lunar cycle, the currents in the passes were slower than usual, which made for a drift dive with no drift and a shark dive with few sharks. Unfortunately, the deep part was still deep, so I would have been very unhappy!

The other highlight of Rotoava was a visit to the Havaiki Pearl Farm and Guest House ( www.havaiki.com ). This pretty guest house sits at a turn in the road south of the village, with its pearl dock reaching out into the azure water or the lagoon. It is operated a young German, Joachim, who married Havaiki, a local girl and they offer visitors the chance to dive for your own pearl oyster, a fun sort of gamble where you "pays your money and takes your chance" that the oyster you pick will have a perfect $100 pearl inside instead of a bumpy lumpy reject! A number of the cruising gals indulged while we were out diving, and at least one came up a winner. For those who don't want to get wet, Joachim also has a nice display in his guest house where you can simply pick out that perfect pearl already set into a necklace. The black pearls of the Tuamotus are not exclusively black. The colors range from gray, to green, to blue, to lavender, to champagne. There were some tempting items, and some francs changed hands, but when all was said and done I refrained. Jewelry just isn't a place I need to spend our money.

As the weather cleared, the group of cruisers dispersed. Most of them had come north from the south pass, so, once they got their anchors unwound from the coral heads it was time for them to move on to Tahiti. We found ourselves heading down to the south pass on our own. Fakarava is some thirty miles long, and most of the eastern edge is one long motu. We were surprised to see here and there in apparent isolation some pretty fancy buildings. At least one of them was a resort, although we'd heard nothing about it. The rest were probably prosperous pearl farms. The channel, marked by red and green beacons, was ironically not in the surveyed strip shown in the charts, and often it was infringed on by the pearl farmers' buoys. We stopped for an overnight on the way south in a palm-lined cove where we were all by ourselves for the first time since the Sea of Cortez .

The south pass of Fakarava ( 16*30'S; 145*27W) is very different than the north pass. Here the atoll edge is comprised of a number of small motu with channels between them, one of which is the pass itself. The "anchorage" lies behind a couple of motu just to the east of the pass, which itself splits into two channels around a triangular reef on the inner side. The area west of the pass is very shallow, and coral reef shoals are scattered all around the "anchorage." I put the word "anchorage" in quotes because for the first time in our lives we were dropping the hook in coral. Not live coral, mind you, but coral without even the pretense of sand in between. Instead of setting the anchor with los of scope as we usually do, we jut dropped enough chain to hook on to something.


The rustic pension Tetamanu stands guard over the pass whose pristine reefs and thick shark population is a magnet for scuba divers and snorkelers. Again, we broke down and paid money to dive with Tetamanu's dive boat. Here the issue was not the long ride, but the lack of any friends around to be our surface watch, an absolute must in the stiff current. Along with the pension's one guest, Anik, a thirty-something gal from Brazil by way of Switzerland , we were dropped into the water just above the line where the pass pours out into the open ocean. If you don't time the tidal current right, this could be a bad place to be, with down "drafts" sucking you into the briny deep. At the right time, though, one can hang over the edge looking out into the abyss at the deep-water sharks that pass by! Then you can turn into the pass and enjoy about a mile-and-a-quarter free ride through a chute of coral ridges and bowls almost to the very back of your boats t anchor in the lagoon! The visibility is awesome, the corals pristine, and the "bowls" are filled with sharks! Most of these are black tip and gray reef sharks not known for being aggressive*, but nonetheless it is really something to soar above a bottom shifting with literally hundreds of sharks. And if that weren't enough, by fortuitous timing we were there during the very short annual season that the marbled groupers assemble to spawn. Thousands of these fish (all perfect eating size) carpet the reefs! This was very hard on Don, who sorely misses the spearfishing of the Sea of Cortez . But even if ciguatera (fish poisoning) were not a concern, were are told that the local guys have about ten seconds to spear the fish and get it either out of the water or into a box before the sharks will be on it! This effectively kept temptation at bay!

I made the pass dive once on scuba and several times just snorkeling while Don was able to dive the pass three more times in the company of Greg, Ruth and their crew Tom of the Hallberg Rassey 53 Bravo Charlie after they joined us in the anchorage. Greg and Ruth have made a "career" of diving the Tuamotus, by commuting back and forth from Hawaii each year for the past four, and of it all this spot is their favorite. On their last dive Greg and Ruth made a video for us which is just like being there!

I mentioned that bad weather bracketed our stay in Fakarava, and sure enough we had a rerun of the nasty stuff we'd experienced not a week previous. This time, demonstrating that we do have a learning curve, we and the other boats in the anchorage did not run north, and this proved to be the right move. The winds backed yet again from North through West to South, but this time the area's scattered reefs provided a sea break against any fetch that could build. Each time the wind shifted, we let out another length of chain, and although our rode on the bottom resembled some kind of macramé knot, we sat relatively steady for all three days that the system passed over us with the wind generator cranking out plenty of amps. Who could ask for anything more?

* Now that our visit to the South Pass is complete, I can't resist appending a little shark tale experienced by some friends the previous week. This group of boats, led by Rick of Emerald are the "serious divers" of the Puddle-jump fleet, and they must have made a dozen dives during their stay in the area before we crossed paths with them in Rotoava. The incident took place about a mile outside the pass when two dinghy-loads of divers were out hoping to pioneer a new site on the outer drop. Rick was sitting on the back corner of the inflated pontoon with his fins dangling in the water preparatory to slipping in to take a look-see. Suddenly, POW, the pontoon exploded and Rick landed on his backside in the dingy. The dinghy owner, mortified, apologized, blaming it on an area of chafe, but after he and his wife went limping home and Rick transferred to the other dinghy, its occupants said that they could swear that something big and black hit the pontoon before it blew. Sure enough, when the whole group was assembled later around the damaged pontoon, a scalloped bite about a foot wide - complete with teeth marks - was very clear. It seems that sharks are sometimes attracted to spinning propellers. They've been known to stop an outboard dead! What really amazes the 2Cs about this tale is that the Rick and company went ahead and made the dive! Yikes!


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