As you are probably aware Sarah and I have been in Thailand for the last 6 weeks or so, bar a one-week side-trip to Cambodia for the sake of getting our Thai visas renewed inexpensively. It’s been wonderful spending time with Sarah’s parents and exploring places by land. There have also been moments of nostalgia. I’ve spent this morning looking through our photographs for the last two years
Sarah would say that I have an unhealthy obsession with anchors and anchoring. She’s probably right, but I am nevertheless going to indulge myself by mentioning a little trick that we learned while we were in the Tuamotus and which I have become an advocate of. I apologise if I get carried away; if you’re not a boater (and even if you are) you might just want to skip this post!
The problem with anchoring in the Tuamotus is that although there are an abundance of beautiful places to visit, there aren’t really any proper anchorages. Furthermore, things can get pretty nasty if you find yourself on the wrong side of a lagoon when the wind shifts around to leave you with your stern to the reef and a few miles of fetch ahead, as we discovered last December in Amanu. The anchorages are generally between 15 and 25 meters deep (45 to 75 feet) and there are numerous coral heads that stick up every 15 feet or so. It’s simply not possible to find a nice, sandy, unobstructed bottom to anchor on, so even if you do manage to lay your chain out along the seabed without snagging anything you’re sure to wrap it around at least one coral head as soon as the wind shifts a few degrees. This is decidedly not great for the coral and also very dangerous for your boat. You can very quickly find yourself unable to raise your anchor and with very short scope such that the chain snatches at the bow and threatens to rip your bow cleats or windlass out of the deck, if it doesn’t snap first. You can always let out more scope, but how much do you have?
Back when we were in Hao last year we had the good fortune to meet some strong advocates of a technique that I had previously read about and mused on. We gave it a go. The idea is to suspend a portion of your anchor chain in the water column such that it passes over the tops of the coral heads as the boat swings, rather than wrapping around the bases. You need solid buoys ideally because soft buoys (such as fenders) will compress and shrink with increasing depth due to water pressure, whereas solid buoys maintain a constant internal volume and therefore consistent buoyancy. Fortunately such buoys are very easy to come by in French Polynesia because the pearl farmers use them and they frequently come adrift in large numbers. Just take a walk down any windward beach (East-facing) and you’ll be able to pick some up.
We started out by letting out the normal amount of scope for whatever depth we were in and then buoying an extra portion at the end so that if (when!) the chain on the bottom got wrapped we’d still have a good bit of slack to play with to stop the chain from snatching. This was fine but because it would still get tangled at the bottom I didn’t like the damage that was being done to the reef from the chain moving about all over the place. We played around with it a bit and have now figured out where on the chain to place buoys so that only the very last bit of chain stays on the bottom. Below is a series of pictures which illustrate the principle quite well (taken by Sarah of course 🙂 )
One drawback to this technique is that the boat moves about a bit more in light winds because there’s no weight of chain sitting on the bottom that needs to be dragged about, and which stops you from drifting about willy-nilly with every slight puff of breeze. Perhaps a more important drawback is that the effect of catenary (the sagging of the chain due to it’s weight, which helps to keep the pull on the anchor as close to horizontal as possible) is lost, but we feel that the advantages are far more numerous than these two slight disadvantages. I would argue that the effect of catenary is minimal in high winds anyway. If the buoys are arranged correctly then the angle of pull with buoys on the chain should be the same as it would be in high winds, when the chain would be pulled out straight anyway and it’s weight would only serve to increase the load on the deck gear, which normally has to support the vertical weight of the chain as well as the horizontal force holding the boat in place. With buoys, the anchor has to work a little harder than it might under normal conditions but this becomes less true as wind speed increases (and the chain loses it’s sag) until it virtually disappears at very high wind speeds (incidentally, tests have shown that a 7:1 scope is sufficient to maintain a sufficiently-shallow angle of pull on the anchor with a rope (near-zero-catenary) rode and that increasing scope further yields negligible benefit). Since the bow gear no longer has to support the weight of the chain (because the buoys now support this weight), the forces on your boat are considerably reduced in a deep anchorage. A large part of the vertical component of the force acting on your bow is removed; what remains is the horizontal component that is necessary to keep your boat in place. Thus, even in 25 knots sustained wind I can take up on the snubber line by hand, inspect the chafing gear for wear, make fine adjustments etc. and I sleep better because I don’t have to listen to the snubber line creaking over my head whenever a swell puts a sudden load on it.
We now use buoys in any deep anchorage regardless of whether there are obstructions on the bottom or not.
Finally, here’s one more picture that nicely illustrates what a moderate squall looks like. This boat was anchored astern of us as one came through. We were sheltered from chop behind a spit of reef ahead so there’s no sea running, but you can get an idea of the wind strength by the fact that the surface of the water appears to be smoking as the wind lifts the water into the air. This one was maybe 35 knots max. Not too bad.
Disclaimer: All of the above spiel is pure conjecture on my part. My practical Physics may well be lacking. If you think it is, I’m all ears for rebuttals!
After leaving Tahanea, we made our way to Fakarava about 40 miles to the north-west. Fakarava is different from all the atolls we’ve visited in the Tuamotus so far. We entered through the south pass and arrived to an area completely set up for tourists. There are no shops, only a few B&Bs, restaurants and dives shops. Although the area had a bit of a ‘holiday resort’ feel to it, I absolutely loved it here. The people are really used to tourists so of course are incredibly friendly, welcoming and helpful – and SPOKE ENGLISH! Despite this, all the buildings still had a local Polynesian feel about them. They were built in such a way to make the most of the surroundings and were absolutely immaculate. This atoll is a marine reserve where fishing is restricted, so the coral reefs and associated species were out of this world. The south pass (being narrow, long and deep) is home to an abundance of different fish species which you would struggle to see in such abundance anywhere else. It reminded me a little of visiting Disneyland as a child, everything is amazing and perfectly placed for the enjoyment of their guests. Even the sharks would come right up to your boat when anchoring, like they too were welcoming us to the area.
Fakarava is famous for scuba diving, in particular for its ‘wall of sharks’ dive along the south pass. It seemed to me that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we decided to fork out some dosh and do a dive with the local company run by the Tetamanu Pension. I would recommend this company to anyone – it’s a combined dive shop, B&B and restaurant run by a wonderful couple who made us feel incredibly welcome. So for my 8th scuba dive ever I decided to do the infamous ‘wall of sharks’, despite my initial trepidation. The dive boat dropped us off at one end of the pass and we were able to let the current take us effortlessly back towards the dive shop. The pass is blanketed with a multitude of colourful branching and boulder corals, providing shelter to a wealth of fish species. Hundreds of bigeyes, snappers, groupers and tuna lined the pass. All swimming effortlessly upstream, appearing suspended and motionless in the water just waiting for the current to languidly push an unsuspecting prey victim into their mouths. Swimming in the same manner was literally hundreds of sharks, which of course was the true spectacle of the dive and gives a real meaning to the name ‘wall of sharks’. Most were grey sharks and whitetip reef sharks, but we knew that other species of shark weren’t far away. The dive shop offer other packages which take you further into the deep blue and allow you to see dolphins and large oceanic sharks such as Silvertips! I think I’ll save that one for a future date however. Even the terrace of the dive shop restaurant stretches out into the water where tonnes of blacktip reef sharks circle waiting for scraps of food to be discarded by the restaurant customers. If you’re feeling daring, you can even go for a snorkel with them if you’re the thrill-seeking type.
We briefly visited some of the other areas of Fakarava, including a 5 year old ‘yacht facility’ located half way up the east side of the atoll. The area is owned by a young couple who operate a small B&B and various yacht services such as wifi, mooring buoys, good meals, beers and a skilled helping hand to any boat problem. The main village in the north is home to some 2000 inhabitants. Despite the large population (well, large in comparison to other atoll in the Tuamotus), shops are still expensive and understocked unless the supply ship has just landed.
We left Fakarava about a week ago and we’re now currently in Tahiti waiting for Alex’s mum to arrive for her visit in a few days time – the days can’t go by fast enough. We’ve been here for just over a day and already we’ve enjoyed a McDonalds and been shopping at the Carrefour – the best selection of food I’ve seen in well over a year! Tahiti might not be as picturesque as our previous destinations, but I’m certainly enjoying the development and access to amenities. I’ve been craving people, shops, bars, restaurants and general development for quite some time now. Although I wouldn’t admit it to other cruisers, Tahiti has always been at the top of my ‘must visit’ list and I feel more at home right now than I have in a long, long time.
Having visited two of the atolls in the Tuamotus at the end of last year I already had an idea that they are a sight to behold, but nothing could prepare me for the splendour of Tahanea. This deserted atoll is breathtakingly beautiful with unspoilt sand bars, pioneering palm trees, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches carpeted with shells. I always thought that those photos you see in travel magazines advertising idyllic paradise getaways to secluded tropical islands were a bit of a fabrication. Not so. I’m actually in one of them, it’s the real deal and it’s just absolutely beautiful. But don’t just take my word for it…. have a look at these:
As you might expect in any deserted island, we spend our time snorkelling, spear fishing and coconut gathering. Tahanea is uninhabited apart from a small settlement that’s occupied for only four months of the year for the copra business. It might be uninhabited at the moment, but Tahanea is not much of a secret with the cruising community as there were already three sailboats here when we arrived. Not that this hindered us in any way, the presence of other sailboats inevitably led to new friendships being formed. Also, we managed to find a private place to anchor completely by ourselves for a number of days in a very protected area in the south of the atoll known as seven reef (as it looks like the number ‘7’ from the satellite imagery). This is the most stunning place I think Bob has ever anchored and the snorkelling around here is just fantastic.
The bird life here is also very special. Alex noticed a sign written in French which might have said that Tahanea is part of a wildlife reserve. Then again, it might have said that all people are free to hunt, kill and eat all the birds – we wouldn’t really have been able to tell the difference! Having said that, we were lucky enough to see what I think is the endangered Tuamotu sandpiper. I noticed a small brown bird that looked like it was an imitating a sand piper but with a shorter beak and seemingly more interested in the scrub habitat near the beach rather than the beach itself – more like a typical insect feeder. The bird also happened to have some rings on it’s legs. I had to do a double take as I thought it was very strange that bird ringing would be going on in this incredibly remote location, and this species certainly didn’t look like any of the usual sea birds I was used to seeing migrate across the oceans. Anyway, I read later on in the Tuamotus compendium that this bird is resident on Tahanea and is a highly endangered species endemic to the Tuamotus. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo, but I did get some of these crested terns instead. Not in the slightest bit rare but their lives of long distance migration across the oceans is impressive nonetheless.
Our time in the Tuamotus, for me, was educational. We were fortunate to be able to learn a few necessary lessons under more-or-less non-hazardous conditions.
The Tuamotus Archipelago is constituted of a hundred or so atolls – raised barrier reefs in a ring-shape with a lagoon in the middle. Some of the atolls are large (the average is about 20 miles by 9 miles) and have a pass through the reef that is wide and deep enough to allow the passage of a yacht. Wicked currents generally tear through these passes, and they are difficult to predict due to the sparsity of tide stations and the complexity of other influencing factors, such as the strength and direction of the winds, how long they have been blowing, the phase of the moon, the prevailing swell direction due to something that might have happened last week a thousand miles away and whether or not Neptune has woken up on the wrong side of the bed with a hangover. In a worst-case scenario a strong current opposes a large swell. This sets up large, steep standing waves which are hazardous enough to broach a large yacht. We read one account of a 60-something-foot yacht which had their cockpit filled twice while negotiating the pass at Hao. In our case, a slight misjudgment on my part led to a bumpy ride out of Hao but nothing dangerous. Lesson learned.
Another lesson was learned when we were caught out on the lee side of Amanu lagoon when the wind picked up to an un-forecast 25 knots. The fetch across the lagoon was 5 miles, which was sufficient to produce some sizable chop. To make matters worse, anchoring inside the lagoons of the Tuamotus usually involves anchoring amidst towering coral heads which snag and entangle your anchor chain. This was the case with us; the rocks had entangled the first 150-feet of our 300-foot scope. The only reason the other 150-feet wasn’t tangled up too is that we had by this point learned to suspend the last hundred feet or so of chain with buoys (if any sailors out there want to know more about this technique let me know and I’ll write a bit more). This helps to protect the coral as well as guaranteeing that you you will always have some scope, and the buoys help to absorb some of the shock loading, in conjunction with a good, long, stretchy snubber line. We spent about 12 hours anchored like this, unable to raise our anchor due to entanglement, unable to let out any more scope because we had it all out already (the water depth was 80′) and with Bob’s bow occasionally burying in the waves. No harm done. We’re ready to head back down there in a couple of months and begin our Tuamotus exploration much better equipped than we might have been.
The passage back North to Marquesas was good, though we were close reaching or close-hauled for all bar the last 6 hours of it. We also encountered violent squalls, but were able to see them coming in advance and shorten sail accordingly. We pulled in to Taiohae Bay, on the South Coast of Huku Hiva, at 9pm local time on December 31st. It was a very dark night as we came in. We dropped anchor behind a catamaran that we could just make out by the glow of her decks as they shone by the light of her mast-head anchor light. I had a rum, Sarah had a glass of wine (well, maybe more than one) and we turned in for a much-needed sleep.
The following morning we discovered that the catamaran anchored next to us was none other than our very good friends aboard El Nido, whom we had last seen in the Gambier Islands. Olivia and David are cruising with their two daughters, Gaya and Kali, who are 5 and 7 years old respectively. We had shared many wonderful days with them in the Gambier Islands and were exceptionally pleased to see them again. One month later, the vein of those wonderful days has continued, and we have come to regard the whole family as very special friends.
I think many people would be surprised to learn of the number of cruisers who are travelling as a family. Home-schooling means that the children do not miss out on their education in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact – the opportunity for them meet so many children from different cultures, backgrounds and economic situations adds hugely to their personal development, and makes for incredibly well-rounded, precocious children who, in my opinion, get a head-start in life compared to the vast majority of their peers. Very few boats have teenagers on board because their requirements are somewhat different, but children in the age range of between about 2 and 11 seem to be well-suited to a cruising lifestyle. At least, that seems to be the case based on the families that we have met thus far.
We haven’t budged in a month now, and a very productive and enjoyable month it has been. Sarah has been working diligently on a statistical data analysis for the Charles Darwin Institute in Galapagos, and I have spent the time making small improvements and doing routine maintenance to Bob. We’ve been pretty shoddy tourists to be honest and have rarely ventured far beyond the shops near to the quay, instead spending our leisure time with fellow cruisers. The one exception to this was a day spent driving all over the island in a rented car. This is an incredibly beautiful place, and Sarah has some stunning landscape pictures to prove it. I’m sure they’ll be making an appearance in her next blog installment. In the meantime I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it and make do with wading through my comparatively drab text 🙂
Our anchor chain has a wealth of growth on it from being submerged in the water column for so long. Sarah has finished her statistical paper, and I have finished my project (more in the next blog post about this). We’re tentatively booked to haul Bob out for a bottom job in Hiva Oa in about two weeks and would like to make a stop in Ua Huka before then, so we’re planning on raising anchor at some time in the next few days and going for a sail. We’re looking forward to it.