Where’s Lizzy: The Tuamotus and The Marquesas

posted by / News / September 19, 2007

Wow, this feels amazing. My anchor is down after the six-day passage from Marquesas to the Tuamoutus. Swell is tucked inside a coral atoll! I can hardly believe it myself. The water in here is as still and clear as a pond of Evian.

I arrived this afternoon, after spending last night tacking precariously between three atolls when trade winds decided to reverse and I couldn’t make my landfall before dark. This morning I laughed at GPS’s track of the twelve-mile figure eight I’d done overnight. Four of my six days at sea were blissful, but the stress of that night and the odd northwest winds had me longing for a safe anchorage. I caught the biggest tuna of my trip (after losing two mahi!) as I closed in on my atoll of choice. It distracted me for the last 5 miles of my approach, but once the filets were on the coldplate, my anxiety returned. I’d NEVER been this nervous about getting Swell anchored. To further complicate the situation, a line of black thunderheads was tailgating me. “The books say I’m supposed to enter the passes on low tide with overhead sun, and I have neither. Great I can always go back out to sea, I guess?” I shrugged, desperately hoping otherwise. But I’d never seen a coral head from the deck of Swell, or navigated a reef pass!? The one chartbook that mentioned this atoll called it a ‘difficult pass’ with its “45-ft wide channel and currents reaching velocities of six knots or more. So when the ocean floor leapt up to 50 foot ledge outside of the pass, I tossed my anchor in a sand patch and figured I would be fine there (per the advice from my ‘advance exploration team’ on Avventura). After paying out the chain, I knew it was going to be a long night. The northwest wind had left a sloppy bump on the sea. A flock of children on the beach waved and hollered ‘helloooooooo” while three humpbacks surfaced not {{{100}}} yards from Swell-what a welcome.

When a fisherman came out of the pass, I flagged him over. I figured I could make his job easier today, and passed over a bagful of tuna filets. There was no way I could eat it all myself. The huge man bared a white-toothed grin and thanked me. I tried out some of my newly-acquired French vocabulary with partial success and understood when he asked me why I was anchored outside the pass. “I’m too scared to go through it,” I explained in sign language. He laughed and signaled for me to follow him. Although I had a great view of a left peeling across the reef from that spot, flat water was too alluring. I was craving safety and stillness. I followed closely behind my leader as Swell bucked violently in the rapids of the atoll outflow. The open sea constantly spills into the atolls over the lowest parts of their coral perimeters, and eventually uses the gap(s) in the coral (reef passes) to escape. This atoll only has one pass, creating the constant fury of outbound water. I almost abandoned the attempt altogether when a standing wave crashed over the stern and into the cockpit. But I kept on; at times I was only making 1.5 knots of headway while the fluorescent river tried to haul me back out to sea. After guiding me between the barely awash coral heads the fisherman stopped in a sandy opening in about 30 feet of water and gave me the signal. As I dropped the hook, he waved and went on his way. I leapt into the calm, turquoise water, wallowing in the enchantment of my new surroundings. Shortly after, the thunderstorm arrived. I bathed in rainwater while I went about transforming Swell from ‘underway mode’ to ‘anchorage mode’. Just before dark I donned my rain jacket and putt out to have a look at the wave I have a feeling I’m going to like this place

The month I spent alone was much needed. And the Marquesas–what an amazing place to be solo! I could have stayed for months. Instead of giving a play-by-play of events, I have compiled a stream of consciousness list of high(and low) lights and observations in a partially chronological order:Free fresh fruit. The art! – it’s appealing geometrical symbols and stories in stone and wood carvings, tattoos and tapa cloths. A glimpse at truly unspoiled Polynesian living-almost everything they need coming directly from the land and sea around them. Locals paddling outriggers in the late afternoon sun. Herds of happy children. Fish drying on the community ‘drying racks’. Seed jewelry and women’s floral hair decoration. The sweet smell of flowers coming off the land at night.Watching a Marquesan male ‘beauty pageant’ with my mother. Forty-cent baguettes and the array of obscenely-priced French imports. The pampas Gendermarie (French police) and their ridiculously small blue shorts. The bizarre 4am Saturday vegetable market in Taiohae Bay. Felicity and Simon and family and barefoot wandering in their valley. Two unlikely surf lessons in Hakatea. River-rafting with Dylan and our gifts of fruit. Speaking Marquesan. Breadmaking 101 with Deirdre Sleigh and my first unsuccessful loaves (bricks). Relentlessly itchy no-no bites. The silhouette of the Hakatea crater-cliffs at night. Tour de tikis with Taipivai local. Invitations into local homes–eating breadfruit ‘popoi’ and ‘kaku’, toro root, poisson cru, and wild pig and goat.

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