Travelling against the trade winds and ocean currents in difficult to navigate waters, the 250 miles (ish) from Moorea to Fakarava was unlikely to be an easy sail. It was an epic adventure, with mostly calm seas, we also had a few tropical squalls with high winds and giant waves thrown in for good measure. This is one sail none of us will forget. It has reminded me of why I love sailing – to travel to new, inaccessible places under your own steam on the ocean, close to nature. Being completely reliant on your boat and yourselves, solving the occasional problem and having the odd adrenalin hit along the way.
We had just hoisted our sails up and were headed out of the pass on Moorea’s reef when Mum and Liz overtook us on the giant high speed ferry headed to Tahiti. They were flying over to Fakarava as they were not keen to sail for three or four days. It was odd looking up at them, tiny dots on the top deck of the ship waving frantically. We watched as they sped out of sight. It took us a little longer to sail the channel from Moorea to Tahiti and although the latter seemed to fade into the distance quickly, it took another 12 hours or so before Tahiti disappeared. Even with some wind progress was slow going at first and after watching lights from the land all night, the next morning we could still just about make out Tahiti’s tall volcanic peaks on the horizon. We sailed into the wind for the next 4 days, tacking our way North East, further into the vast Pacific Ocean. All of you sailors out there will know that it is not possible to sail directly into the wind and that you have to go in a zig-zag pattern which can take a long time, especially if the swell is big. Sailors and their boats are always happier with the wind behind them. However it was what it was and we sailed with the wind and tide against us the entire way.
On the second day we settled into a nice light headwind and smaller seas, this hung around for 24 hours before increasing somewhat the following afternoon. We were all very happy and Larka was doing marvellously. Oli found his sea legs brilliantly and participated well with crewing jobs such as helping to tack (turn the boat), adjusting the sails and keeping a high spirit. I loved watching him learn new things as Dad taught him many important sailing skills, knots and whipping rope were a few. Oli is a ball of enthusiasm and picked things up well. He seems to be especially good at helming. I put this down to his years attending Helford River Children’s Sailing Trust learning to sail dinghies. Both he and Liz looked forward to this in Summer term when Cury School took them. The Trust provide free weekly sailing sessions to all the local schools. Both children have been very lucky to have had this available to them. When we get back to Cawsand we will join Cawsand Bay Sailing Club, this runs from the beach outside Mum and Dads house and is where I learned to sail. We have an old wooden Enterprise dinghy that we plan to do up over the winter and sail next year.
We sailed onwards, a stronger breeze enabling us to make great progress throughout the afternoon. The sun was beating down on the brilliant bright blue sea, I felt very happy. I was in my element, sailing with my Son and my Dad from one tropical paradise to another in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t have been more content and hoped Mum and Liz were having a good time back in Tahiti. Oli, Dad and I relaxed in the comfortable cockpit as Larka carried us forwards over the waves, autohelm on. We were well over half way and everything was going splendidly. I started to think the trip was going to be much more straight forward than I had thought, maybe upwind sailing wasn’t that bad? Suddenly a huge bang made us all jump to attention, it took a spit second to see what had happened. Our genoa, the sail at the front of the boat had broken free from it’s sheets (the ropes that control it) and was now beating furiously like a wild animal trying to escape. The sheet lie still on the deck with the large metal eye that fastens it on to the sail lying with it. The genoa is designed to take a massive load, helping to displace around 11 tonnes of boat through the water. Once this join was broken between the sail and rope it would take time and a professional sailmaker to fix. Neither of these were to hand at that moment so the sail was now useless and had to come down. If it continued to beat like it was it would rip to sheds. Luckily Dad had a spare, much older and lighter weight genoa tucked away in a locker. Sail changes on cruising boats are not a frequent occurrence and in a large sea with a good wind the task at hand was a little challenging, although it all went smoothly. We checked the autohelm and all three if us went up onto the foredeck. The first job was to fully unfurl (unroll) the huge flogging sail before dropping it onto the deck as fast as possible. Due to the increasing winds we did not have the entire sail out, this reduces a sails power. As we unrolled the huge piece of canvas out to its full extent the wild uncontrollable whipping increased substantially before quickly being subdued as we dropped the halliard and it fell to the deck. We then rolled it away, stowing it safely below before hoisting the older sail up the forestay and furling it up. We double checked we had attached the sheets correctly, went back to the cockpit, held our breath and gave the old sail a go. It worked really well and our boat speed started to increase as it helped our main sail to pull Larka through the water once more. It was a great success, we celebrated with a cup of tea!
Throughout the afternoon the cloud and wind increased further. We started to see larger clouds form with angry looking dark grey undersides and tall white fluffy tops. The larger clouds sometimes also had rain shadows develop beneath them making them look rather scary and not something you wanted to sail under if at all possible. These mini weather systems are common in the tropics and are caused by the warmer seas evaporating into pockets of cooler air. They are even more prevalent in the evenings when the air temp drops further. On occasion they even have thunder and lightning in them and provide quite a show at night. We didn’t see any of these on this trip however. Night time is obviously harder to spot the clouds so it is very important to reef the sails (make them smaller), this makes it safer when you do encounter some extra wind.
We didn’t have a watch system formally arranged but I would just goto bed early and get four or five hours sleep before swapping with Dad at around 2 am. Oli sometimes joined us for bits of the night. In the day we were mostly all awake with the exception of a few hours here or there. Dad is a professional cat napper and never needs much sleep. On that third night there was quite a bit of cloud around so I had to call Dad up three times as we were hit by squalls. None of them were very strong thankfully but non the less it is better to be ready than not.
The next day was wonderful, we were nearly there, expecting to arrive the following morning in time for slack water at the pass. The swell and wind dropped right down and we were joined by a mix of birds all diving and swooping across the sea catching small fish. It was a real feeding frenzy with larger fish (Bonito I think) also jumping out of the water. It is well known that where you get feeding birds there is an increased chance of seeing a whale or dolphins. It was not to be on this occasion but the birds and jumping fish were enough of a spectacle. We had various species of Boobies, Noddies and Turns, plus a few Gannets. Oli tried to catch a fish but despite his best efforts they were more interested in the real thing. Our companions stayed around nearly all day providing great entertainment, I have no idea if we were following them or for some reason their prey were sticking by the boat. It was great having them around though. The day ended with an astounding sunset, lots of building cloud lit up and illuminated a burnt orange colour as the sun sunk below the horizon. It was this cloud that was to keep Dad and I up for the rest of the night, taking only a short time to fill in. By the time it was dark we couldn’t see a single star, the sea had grown and the wind was up. It was going to be a long one!
Every night so far we had been lucky enough to get an incredible full moon. As well as very beautiful it was also practical revealing any approaching cloud a bit more easily. On this evening we very rarely saw the moon and mostly it was just pitch black. The first squall hit and we reduced the sail to a small triangle of the genoa. To get the main sail down I had to climb onto the foredeck, firmly attached by a harness. The sea was so rough that I am not ashamed to say I crawled on my hands and knees for some bits. Sail safely down I crawled back again as the boat was tossed around in the waves.
It was a long old night but also really exciting, rough weather sailing involves having to think things through a bit. As each squall past we had a chance to rest, taking it in turns to snooze or have a cup of tea. It seemed like forever but the Sun finally rose and revealed land on either side. These islands are not like the towering green slopes of Tahiti and Moorea. The Tuamotus are low lying atolls that can only be seen a few miles away. Most edges have submerged jagged reef where waves break over the top. A few palm tree lined motus are dotted randomly along them. Each atoll has a large shallow lagoon in the middle, outside the reef the sea bed drops steeply away to over 1000 metres. The gap between the two island we sailed between (one of which was Fakarava) was about 5 miles wide and 10 miles up. We had to tack our way along. As the channel narrowed the waves grew further, squeezing through the gap. They were absolutely massive and very mixed in direction. The morning progressed slowly but we finally made it to the final tack before the pass. We could see the first navigation buoy with our weary but excited eyes and had everything crossed. It should be turning slack low water anytime soon, the point where the tide turns at low water before the sea comes back in. If conditions were right we should simply be able to slip between the reef into the lagoon. However passes are unpredictable and you sometimes find huge standing waves where calm water should be. The boat was sailing exceptionally well into the big swell and we were very nearly there, or so we thought. Just five miles off the pass now the wind increased, not by just a little. A very different cloud pattern was forming in the sky and the wind accelerated exponentially. Every wave soon had white water on it and the boat started to strain with the power filling the sails, even with the let out and lugged (spilling the wind) We could not believe our bad luck, we barely had time to drop the sails and turn away from the wind before near gale force winds were beating down on us. It was so strong that we were sure we could never beat into it even just for five miles. This happened so very quickly and we were all so disappointed and not quite sure what to do. We decided to hove too while we worked out our options (stop the boat). The South pass was a near 30 mile back track around the West of the Island. We could try that but there was no guarantee we could get in there either. What was that pass going to be like? It then dawned on me that if we didn’t get in by tomorrow Mum and Liz would arrive with us not there and we had no way of getting a message to them to give a change of plan or even to say we were ok. The thought of the worry this would cause made us reassess our options. Could we just motor the last five miles into the wind and waves and see if the North Pass was do able? A wave of stubborness set over me, wanted to atleast try, Dad agreed. However, would we make it in time before the tide changed and the pass became inaccessible once more? What if the wind had created problems at the pass? There were so many what if’s to consider but in my experience it is better try these things if you can still do it safely. We didn’t have to go I to the pass once there, just take a look.
When Dad bought Larka a few years ago the main sail only had two reefing points to shrink the sail. He made the call to spend the money to put a third reef in as an extra safety measure. It is actually unusual to not have this on a main sail. This third reef had never been used but today is was essential. Without the tiny main sail and the trusty engine we would likely never have made it to the pass but we did. The waves were huge and the wind was so very strong, I was so impressed how Larka powered through and still made progress. It was a race against time to get to the pass. As the miles slowly counted down I looked through the binoculars, trying to see the patch of safe water we needed to enter Fakarava’s lagoon. As we reached the last half a mile the coastline we were following turned a slight corner. The swell quickly dropped away and we could see dive boats in the pass (these areas of high energy water attract sharks and other marine life making for some of the best diving in the world). Between us and the dive boats was calm water we could enter the atoll and had made it safely in. We were relieved, Larka had done so well in the last few days but especially those last five miles. She is not a new boat and powering her through like that was not ideal but it had worked. With special thanks to her engine and that third reef!
The last five miles were simple in the lagoon and we sipped at a celebratory cup of tea. Once at the anchorage we jumped in the sea, cooked a massive meal and had a well deserved beer (juice for Oli). I then slept for the rest of the afternoon. Oli and Dad managed a trip ashore. What an adventure, we were buzzing!
Mum and Liz have now joined us, they had their own adventures!! ( Liz is drafting her blog as we speak). We have spent the past day comparing notes and telling tales. Together once more we are all loving this breathtakingly beautiful place, I can’t wait to go diving. We are off to the famous South Pass today, there is a small channel through the middle of the atoll. Along the way we hope to stop a few nights at some deserted motus. Already another adventure is starting…….