A magical arrival at Bora Bora

We arrived at Bora Bora in the early hours of dawn having sailed slowly since midnight to try and arrive in daylight. The sun rose majestically above the mountains in the centre of the island — and as we sailed through the atoll entrance a pod of dolphins came to welcome us, playing in our bow wave. The colours – muted reds of the sunrise, the greens of a dramatic mountain and the shiny darkness of the dolphins in deep blue, all jumping around us made for a truly magical arrival. We were all very excited and delighted to have arrived in such a beautiful place.

We sailed straight down to the south of the atoll, to a quiet anchorage where there is access to one of the few beaches which is not private. The water was breathtaking (both its shallowness and its colour). The moorings were mostly empty and all the hotels – luxury huts on the water, are shut as there have been no tourists here since February. It’s very quiet and peaceful. The locals and us alike are loving it. Everyone we’ve seen has been super friendly and welcoming, it seems a magical place.

The boys played with the French children on the neighbouring boat and Josef (also aged 9) kindly lent them a go on his “Tiwal”, an inflatable sailing dinghy. It was amazing fun and super fast. A great warm water sailing dinghy for children. We enjoyed the coral gardens and swimming with the rays and walking across the atoll rim to the Pacific facing edge. The trees and their bark were amazing too.

An untenable stay at Makatea

With strong winds due in a week (probably remnants of the cyclone near New Caledonia recently) we decided to sail onto Makatea whilst the wind looked mild and we had a calm window to be at Makatea. It sounded an interesting island, the only atoll which has cliffs. After a 125nm passage and a night at sea we approached Makatea around lunch time. It was slightly surreal, as it looked like we were sailing towards the Isle of Wight!

After months of seeing only flat atolls — barely half a metre above sea level, it was a shock to see cliffs that soar 80m into the sky.

There are only three moorings at Makatea and it’s far too deep to anchor, so you slightly hold your breath as you round the island and hope that there aren’t three boats already there.

Good news there wasn’t, but the one boat we could see, a large 80+ft schooner, had it’s masts weaving around all over the place, not a good sign – it didn’t look like a settled anchorage!

We managed to pick up the mooring in front of the very close rocks and stood, rather alarmed, watching the crashing waves at the entrance to the “harbour” area. There was no way we were trying the entrance in a dinghy and the anchorage felt like we were still sailing at sea with a strong swell from the west.

Waves crashing at the entrance

It’s a reminder that you are in the middle of a vast ocean with little or no protection, in cyclone season.

After getting another up to date weather forecast from the coral expedition boat behind us, like them, we made a decision to sail on — next stop was another 200nm to the Society Islands. Unfortunately even though the wind was going to be okay in 24hours time there was a large swell coming from the west and we had no protection in that direction. It would only get rougher. So unfortunately we haven’t seen the old phosphate mining craters, caves, vanilla plantations, lagoons or rock climbing but I gather it’s a great tour round the island if you are luckier with the weather and swell than we were.

We managed to stay long enough to eat a bouncy dinner before setting off on another long night watch. But the next stop is Bora-Bora, how exciting is that, even if it is two more nights at sea!

Wonderful welcome at Toau, Tuaomotos

We stopped for a relaxing few days at the atoll of Toau and met the kindest hosts Valentine and Gaston. They welcomed us into their home and island as we explored the land and sea around them.

The water was gorgeous and clear, full of amazing coral and teaming with fish and sharks. Large napoleon wrasse swam inquisitively around us with their bulging round eyes eyeing us up. The sharks were sometimes all around the boat too which made for some exciting times whilst Felix’s was fishing! (Yes he did catch one…)

Water based life

We forget that our life totally revolves around water. We shall miss the sea when we get our land legs again but for now we are enjoying swimming practically every day and exploring the underwater gardens and sealife.

Getting out of the atoll passes is always interesting with the tide roaring away even at slack tide — and depending on the previous weather the water does what it wants and ignores tide timetables anyway.

We are always careful to time it to the minimum tide possible together with the sun directly overhead so we can see the shallow water and coral bommies. Even so it’s quite exciting entering and exiting them.

Once inside the water is so clear you can see exactly how we float our anchor chain to avoid the coral bommies. Which means you can anchor off delightful reef anchorages like these. Perfect cruising life!

Parcel collected —Christmas presents in February!

We finally picked up our parcel in Fakarava which has been waiting for us for awhile…which contained valuable spares; water maker parts and winch bits and to the boys delight Christmas presents from Grandad. Thank you Mac, the luminous scribble-on T-shirts are an amazing success and we all love the games too.

Hugo got his prize from his junior RYA letter of the month (a year ago!) so more fun things to play with too. Very happy boys.

We’ve decided to wait in the village for the next supply boat to arrive, in the hope that a) this one actually does arrive (the last one didn’t turn up) and b) it has fresh fruit and vegetables on it. Which is not always guaranteed in these COVID times. There is a limit to our delight surviving on tins and we are dreaming of anything fresh now.

The boys did a hike to the old lighthouse and even managed to find some geo-caches too complete with exploring the outside of the reef.

We also managed to find the only restaurant on the island and bonus, it was actually open for dinner. A splendid treat for a night out and no cooking for once!

Diving Fakarava south pass

Of all the atolls in the Tuaomotos, the south pass of Fakarava is renowned for its sharks, the shear volume of them. Literally hundreds. There is a small dive resort at the south pass to cater for this phenomenon and we happily dived with them.

We were not disappointed, I’ve dived around the world and this has to be the biggest grouping of sharks I’ve ever seen. I’m not exaggerating to say we saw well over a hundred and fifty sharks. A mixture of grey, black and white tip sharks. They hang out in the atoll pass in the strong current that rages through. Our dives were timed with the current so we could drift past them in amazement at their vast numbers. The water is crystal clear and the coral was stunning too. Fabulous dives and well recommended.

The boys sat and did homeschooling whilst we dived, to the owners amazement! They did get to feed some fish ends to the smaller reef sharks beside the restaurant. Even the huge napoleon wrasse were swimming amongst the sharks vying for bits of food. It’s quite a spectacle to behold.

The next day the sunshine was swapped for torrential rain and winds. The rain was gratefully received and we managed to fill our water tanks, hurray! Fresh water showers for a change 👍.

We waited for sunshine and visibility before sailing on!

Tahanea wildlife park

Our next stop after saying a sad goodbye to our new sailing friends in Amanu and Hao, was the atoll of Tahanea. No one lives in the vast atoll and it’s been designated a wildlife park as a a result.

The water was stunning aquamarine blue and beautifully transparent. I’ve had worse visibility in a swimming pool than here! We snorkelled and swam to our hearts content and the boys made dens and looked for shells on the fringe of the atoll.

We snorkelled the entrance pass into the atoll and were treated to a magnificent array of stunning fish and coral. It was truly breathtaking and some of the best coral we have seen. We saw numerous reef sharks too and even a bull shark and her young one which was a bit alarming but they disappeared rapidly off into the blue. Not that we have underwater cameras, this is just the marine life swimming beside the boat taken from the deck!

We greatly enjoyed our stunning stay in this amazing atoll, sailing across its vast interior and quiet beauty. Raw Pacific splendour at its best.

Time for some winch repairs before tackling the infamous atoll passes, with the boys on coral/bommie lookout, on our way to explore another island in our Pacific paradise.

Kite boarding in Amanu

Our first island in the Tuaomotos turned out to be small kite boarding mecca. With a small and wonderfully social fleet of six boats (all in Amanu waiting for a weather window to sail to the Gamblers), the thing to do whilst waiting was kite boarding. The reef around the atoll stops the waves and yet the wind can come straight over it which makes for perfect kite boarding conditions.

Kite boarding paradise

Even the kite boarding instructors had come down from Fakarava to Anaho for the ‘down season’ and to enjoy the winds. Russell managed to get another lesson in and rent some gear and joined in the colourful fun.

Russell kite boarding

We even had Hugo playing with a small foil kite from the dinghy and paddle board. It seems to be the sport for cruisers and a great motivator for all the kids to finish school promptly so they can go kiting and foiling.

Hugo learning kiting from the dinghy

It’s a stunning atoll with crystal clear water and coconut palm trees growing on the coral fringes of the atoll. A great place to swim and explore and catch fish!

Sailing to the Tuaomotos past nuclear testing sites in the South Pacific

We found a great weather window (with the wind and strength in the right direction) and left on the 500 nautical mile passage to Amanu from the Gambiers. We timed our leaving for our estimated arrival time to ensure we could sail through the atoll entrance passage at Amanu in daylight. The tides can reach 6-7ktns at the entrance, so you have to time arriving and leaving carefully to avoid ending up on the coral.

Once we were sailing we found the wind speeds, and thus our boat speed, higher than predicted which left us in a typical sailing predicament. Do we sail slower to get there at the right predicted time? But sailing slowly goes against the grain with me, you never know when the wind might drop, or how good the forecast is for the middle of nowhere in the first place. So we pressed on and decided we would worry about it nearer our destination. Trying to time an arrival four days out is not easy, there are too many variables at play. Two days in to our passage and our speeds were still averaging 7-8ktns so we could even arrive a night early at that rate, or miss it and have to wait outside the atoll for 12 hours to get in…only time and the wind would tell and the wind was due to drop. We held our breath, put the full sails out and kept going. We had had 38ktns of wind overnight and as we are goose-winged, (downwind sailing sail position), with a polled out genoa and preventers on the main sail, it’s a lot of ropes to deal with to try and reef the sails in a hurry.

The passage was quite rolly with 2.5m swell which knocked us around a bit but not enough to stop boat-school or baking. We certainly have a good excuse for any poor handwriting for the boys though!

Boat school in action

We saw very little whilst sailing, no whales or dolphins and only the very occasional oceanic bird. We wondered what the damage is for all the nuclear testing France did in all the Pacific islands around here is? We sailed past many small islands and atolls where they did testing with most of them are marked as ‘do not stop’ at as a result of the testing. Maybe they nukked all the oceanic life too, it’s a very quiet ocean. Or maybe it’s just big and empty too, I don’t know but it does seem weird.

Unbelievably we managed to arrive at Amanu a night early and with 40 minutes to spare till slack tide. We motored past the pass and looked at the crashing rollers on either side, it’s definitely one of the more challenging and narrow passes to get through! We successfully got through the ‘dog-leg’ pass with four knots of water gushing us through and this was supposedly slack tide, maybe not!

We motored across the atoll and met up with a fleet of six boats all waiting for a weather window to sail to the Gambiers. Amongst them were two family boats including a family we’d spent the previous Christmas with at Bequia in the Caribbean (S/y Due South). The boys were delighted to have friends to play with and to explore the island atolls with seven boys and one girl it was a great gang to play with!

Visiting a Pearl Farm in the Gambiers

We were lucky with timing as the New Year turns out to be a pearl harvesting time from the fourth of January for two weeks. Our wonderful friends aboard S/y Sugar Shack kindly arranged for us, s/y Major Tom and Auntie to visit a small family pearl farm and we watched them harvest the pearls, seed them again for another growth and then re-attach to the growing sheets. It was fascinating to watch.

The oysters have to be two years old before they seed them and they leave them to grow a pearl for around 18 months (cleaning and checking them regularly inbetween). The more light they get, the more colours on the pearl.

Each oyster can be used 2-3 times before they are discarded and the shells sent to China for use as mother-of-pearl items. In return China send rope and pearl bouys apparently, not money. Rather a good deal for China it seems. The market seems to have bottomed out for pearls apparently so the farmers were a little despondent at their fate and costs.

Harvesting the pearls was a whole family affair and we met brothers, friends and the children of the owner, all with jobs to do. The oysters can only survive 1.5 hours out of the water so there are various basic manual jobs to be done in a rather relaxed sequence.

We were warmly welcomed and watched the process — with our boys in awe of the shiny shells and the magnificent pearls they were retrieving. This small farm (yes it is as small as it looks in the photos, about double the size of a garden shed) produces over 100,000 pearls in one year and there are loads of these farms scattered all around the Gambiers, others much larger.

Not all pearls make the cut and many are classified as “junk” pearls, unable to be sold. Although to me the “junk pearls” do seem to be the ones with character and individuality, rather than a perfect sphere. All the pearls grown in the Gambiers are a myriad of colours with a base of the distinctive grey-metallic Pacific hue. It made a great ‘school trip’ for the boys and we all enjoyed learning something about pearls. We even got to eat some of the pearl ‘meat’ (looks like a scallop to me), although I’m not sure it was to Felix’s taste judging by this face!

From the retired or discarded oysters the boys were able to have a go and find the tiny pearls which they kept much to their amazement and the worker’s hilarity.

Junk pearls

A great outing in stunning surroundings and another highlight to our adventure. Big thanks to s/y Sugar Shack for kindly arranging it all.