French Polynesia is an overseas collectivity (or territory) of France, composed of 118 islands and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, of which 67 are inhabited. These islands and atolls are divided into five island groups: the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Society Islands archipelago, the Gambier Islands, and the Austral Islands.
The distances between the islands within one group are small- usually a few hours or a day sail. But the passages from one island group to the next are hundreds of miles and can take many days.
We stage our passage southwest from the Marquesas Islands to the Tuamotu Archipelago from Ua Pou together with S/V Invictus and S/V Mercredi Soir. It is a 450NM passage which will take a few days. Fata Morgana is the smallest and slowest of the three catamarans, so after the first day of sailing our friends are already way ahead of us and we have no radio contact. Last time we heard from Invictus, they had some problem with the steering and the head sail, and Nicole got really badly rope-burned on the right hand.
We have checked the weather forecast. A convergence zone with strong winds and squalls is passing south. According to the GRIB files, the bad weather will remain 200NM south of the Tuamotus, so we should be fine with 15kt winds predicted for our area.
On the third night of the passage a storm hits us with 40 kts winds from east. It’s 8 p.m., pitch black, clouds, rain, the waves building up- the horror. We drop the mainsail leaving only a bit of the jib sticking out as a storm sail. We hope this is a squall and will pass in a few minutes.
The sea’s fury is awesome. The thunder of the waves and the howling of the wind sound evil, like death approaching. And it’s not about to end. Not in a few minutes, not in a few hours. The night becomes a nightmare.
Ivo is dealing with situation, hand steering. Maya is surprisingly calm and unafraid. She is trying to reassure me too. I, on the other hand, am losing it.
“If I survive this, if I ever get to dry land, I will walk away and never set foot on a boat again!”
I am sending messages on the IridiumGo satellite to Mel and Krisha with our position, preparing a water-tight survival bag with hand-held VHF radio, crackers, bottle of water, knife, submergible lights in case the mast snaps, the boat flips and breaks to pieces and sinks, and we are left floating in the dark ocean raging around us, full with sharks. What chance do we have?
The boat is now surfing down the waves, hard to keep her stable; we are getting pushed off course to the west. We have to slow down. From the stern Ivo deploys our improvised drogues- the Galapagos beer crates, this time prepared and ready to use. They are so good- work miracles!
Still getting pushed west though. We decide to try something we have never done before. We heave-to. The boom is open all the way to starboard, mainsail down, the jib is sticking just a bit, maybe a square meter surface, parallel to the boom, the wheel is turned all the way to port and locked, the wind and waves are hitting us from port at about 45 degrees. The boat is trying to turn port because of the wheel, like when you are tacking, but cannot, because of the boom and jib. So- miracle! She is stuck. Cannot turn port, cannot tack, cannot turn starboard, cannot jibe. She stops smoothly the waves lifting her up and posing her down slowly at a very comfortable angle.
It’s 1:00 a.m., storm raging, but it feels fine, even smooth. We are still getting pushed west a bit, but only about 1 kt an hour. And guess what we did for the rest of the nightmare? Exhausted, we slept! Not like babies, but we slept, and if someone has told me that I will sleep during a storm, I would’ve never believed it. But I did.
6:00 a.m. the sun is pushing the night away and with it- the storm is dying out as well. We survived it.
Yet, more scary times awaited us.
Arriving in Raroia
The Tuamotu Archipelago is also known as the Dangerous Archipelago. These low lying atolls have claimed many boats wrecked on their reefs, which you cannot see at night. Even entering through the turbulent waters of the narrow passes can be disastrous. Navigating in and out of the atolls has to be done with lots of care, at slack tide, when the current in the cut is not too strong.
Raroia is our first atoll ever, so naturally we are anxious and worried about entering through the narrow cut. We arrive in the evening and heave-to again not far from the atoll entrance. This time we do it not because of bad weather but because we have to wait out the night and only enter in daylight and at the precise moment when the tides change direction, the currents reverse and the water in the pass is at its calmest state.
In the morning, we still have a bit of a current in the pass flowing against us, creating turbulent waters with sort fast river-like waves and whirlpools, but with full sails and both engines we enter in the lagoon successfully.
To find ourselves in Paradise, after surviving the horrors of Hell.
Not a single hotel, not a single tourist. A lagoon just for us with calm turquoise waters surrounded by a string of little uninhabited islands with coconut palm trees and pink beaches. Like in the postcards, but real!
An atoll is a coral reef enclosing a pool of water called a lagoon. Atolls form from a volcanic island circled by a coral reef. First, a volcano pops up from the sea. Then corals start to form around the edges of the crater. With time the volcano starts to sink back down into the sea and eventually- disappears. But the ring of corals formed around it remains and even keeps growing, because the corals keep accumulating. Small flat coral and sand islands appear here and there on the edge of the lagoon protected by a reef. An oasis in the vast blue ocean desert.
With about 80 islands and atolls, the Tuamotus (meaning the “Distant Islands”) form the largest chain of atolls in the world.
The oval-shaped Raroia is one of the westernmost smaller Tuamotu atolls, measuring 43 km by 14 km, with a land area of 41 km² and a navigable central lagoon with an area of 359 km². We sail across the lagoon and drop anchor in front of one of the small uninhabited motus (islets), where our friends are already waiting for us.
We celebrate our arrival with a huge bonfire on the beach, food and drinks, music and stories.
Not far from here, just a 10-minute kayak paddle away, is the Kon-Tiki Island. Here Thor Heyerdahl and his crew arrived after sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Peru on a replica of an ancient raft. This is one of the most epic sailing adventures ever. It is a humbling awe-inspiring experience standing on the spot where Thor Heyerdahl once stood after surviving 100 days of storms, sharks and uncertainty. Imagine the joy he and his men felt landing on this very beach!
The passes or cuts between the islands in the atolls with their strong currents can be dangerous for navigation but they can also be lots of fun for the kids.
The smaller cuts between the motus are like warm shallow rivers, changing direction, flowing in and out with the tides- a roller-coaster for the kids carpeted with corals like blooming flowers. The Coral River.
The bigger deeper passes are even more stunning with underwater coral canyons. Here the currents are massive, bringing nutrients from the ocean inside the lagoon and this is why these passes are packed with fish- some of the best diving spots in the world. But also dangerous, mainly because of the currents, but also- because of the sharks.
On the other side of the lagoon, near the only village with about 200 inhabitants and near the main big pass (he lagoon’s entrance), we meet Jessica and Chris-a young couple from the USA cruising around with their super old but still very adorable dog named Martini. They are professional divers and underwater photographers who offer to take us to an awesome diving spot.
Ivo and Maya learned to dive and got their PADI certificates not too long ago- back in Colombia thanks to Cata and Sebastian from DeepCoral. They got diving gear and bottles, but we have no compressor on board to fill the bottles with air, so since Colombia, they never had the chance to dive. Until now. Invictus has a compressor on board and Tobi is happy to fill Ivo and Maya’s bottles.
Diving is permitted everywhere in French Polynesia, and you don’t have to go on a tour or have some instructor or guide with you if you don’t want to (unlike Galapagos). Plus, there are only a couple of dive shops in Tuamotu, none in Raroia. If you have diving gear- you can dive as much as you want anywhere you like. And thanks to Tobi and his compressor and dinghy, Ivo and Maya had the chance to dive all over French Polynesia, starting in Raroia. And thanks to Chris and Jessica S/V Silent Sun, we learned where the best diving spots are in Tuamotus. In exchange for one pamplemousse and one papaya they guided the first awesome dive in Raroia’s main pass.
The Pearl Farm
Also here, there is a real pearl farm, where real black pearls are produced and harvested in the lagoon.
After the dive, we go ashore to meet the young owner of the pearl farm. He is third generation pearl farmer, after his grandfather started the business with oysters and his father developed the black pearl industry.
“I am the Last Pearl Farmer. The climate has changed, Global Warming has had devastating effects on the pearl industry and soon, there will not be many pearl farms left in Tuamotu.”
He explains about the process of pearl-farming and how the pearls are produced. We are allowed to walk around and watch the works but we are not permitted to film or take pictures. After all, this is a million-dollar industry and the professional secrets must be guarded, as every pearl farmer has his own particular methods. But the main process of pearl production is the same everywhere: a piece of a “donor” oyster is implanted into its “recipients”. A small artificial ball with special chemical composition is carefully introduced inside the oyster by a specialist. This is the most sensitive part of the process and if not placed correctly, the pearl will not form. After this the oysters return in the water, floating attached on small fishing buoys which are also attached to the bottom and can be easily destroyed by storms. With time a pearl forms inside the oyster around the small ball. Within 6 to 12 months the culturing process is complete, and the pearls are ready for extraction. But not all oysters survive, and not all pearls turn out good. Only those that meet specific standards are sold.
In the evening, the pearl farmer invites us and our friends for diner at his house. We all bring a dish and a bottle to share. My fresh fruit salad is greatly appreciated. There are not many fruits and vegetables on the island where everything is hard to get and has to be ordered and delivered from Tahiti, except fish, coconuts, and black pearls.
We fell in love with this place and we didn’t want to leave it ever. Remember how I wanted to walk away from the boat because of the storm? What storm? I forgot all about it after a couple of days in Raroia, plus there is nowhere to go really, except a small village with 200 people or a few uninhabited islands with coconut palms.
Back on the boat and let’s sail to the next atoll!
*Watch our 14-minute YouTube video The Kon Tiki Island Raroia– hooking a marlin, surviving a storm, arriving in our first atoll. Having fun, meeting the last pearl farmer, and visiting the place Thor Heyerdahl crash landed with his raft.
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