Sunday, April 30, 2017

An E-Ticket Ride to Maupiti

We awoke at 5:00 am this morning after a restless night worrying about the voyage ahead. We were going to sail to the rarely visited island of Maupiti, about 27 miles northwest of Bora Bora. There is a reason Maupiti is rarely visited - its entrance. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, you read other sailor's articles about the pass to Maupiti and you develop a healthy respect for the risks involved. "Pass Onoiau has a poor reputation because in rough condition it is hazardous to enter and numerous vessels have come to grief here." Huge breaking surf guards the east and west sides of the pass and the outgoing current can reach up to 9 knots. This pass should only be attempted in ideal conditions. And so on.

So the bottom line is you attempt this pass only in near perfect conditions, which means a light northeasterly wind, a southern swell below five feet, and clear visibility. And today looked like one of those days.
Leaving Bora Bora was difficult for us as it was such a beautiful and idyllic place.
We had already checked out of French Polynesia, so one way or the other we had to leave today. We had hoped for a quick getaway, but when we went to undo the mooring lines, we found them tightly wound in a candy cane wrap that took us about 20 minutes to untangle.
We talked with The Regency of the Seas and agreed to pass port-to-port near the pass.
Next, I looked at our navigation computer and saw a 1,000 foot cruise ship, The Regency of the Seas, was about to enter the narrow Bora Bora pass -- just as we would be exiting. A short radio call to the Regency got things sorted out and we passed them port to port about 1,000 ft. away just outside the pass. It was like a lit-up floating city passing us in the early morning hours.

The good news was we had very good weather conditions. The wind was less than 2 knots so we ended up motor sailing for about two hours, at which point the wind filled in to around 9 knots that made for a pleasant downwind sail. Our concern was a fairly large, very long period swell coming from the southeast. We wondered how this would affect the entrance at Maupiti.

The say Maupiti is Bora Bora thirty years ago. We agree.
After five hours of sailing we approached the southeast point of Maupiti with its towering mountain in the background. We saw two sailboats about two miles ahead and through our powerful binoculars we could see their masts heading into the entrance, so we at least knew it was possible to enter today (or they were charter boats whose captain thought "it's not my boat").

As we got closer, however, all we could see was a powerful line of continuous breaking surf with huge plumes of spray drifting out in the northwest wind. According to friends who had done the pass earlier in the year, you had to have a lot of trust as you traverse what seems like a continual line of surf until a break appears -- then you square the boat up and make a run for it.

Through the breaking surf and boiling water you suddenly see two large orange and white range markers, which you line up like a gun sight, keeping them inline puts you on the right inbound course. Things are happening fast now, so not a lot of time to think, more just quick reactions trying to keep the boat lined up on the two range markers as the current throws us to the right and then the left. The view was spectacular, but also frightening. On our left the breakers were pounding on the reef, and only 75 ft to our right the reef bared itself with jagged coral outcroppings as the surf broke across it.

Even with our powerful 62 hp. turbocharged Yanmar diesel, we were still only doing 2.4 knots against the 4 knot out bound current. By entering at noon when it's high tide we had the advantage of a lesser current, but we were still getting spun around like those teacup rides at the State Fair. Our first range quickly runs out and we turn about 30 degrees right and pick up a second range. I glance down at the depth sounder which now says 5 ft., then 8 ft., then 56 ft., realizing that the water is so turbulent and full of bubbles that the depth sounder can't maintain accurate readings. We're not aground so I figure that's good enough for me, as I have my hands full with steering and navigating.

Now leaving the second set of red/green navigational poles, things begin to slowly taper down to just a frightening level. The speed creeps up to 2.7 ("We're hauling now.") and the pass begins to widen a bit. As we get further inside we decide to take the main sail down since we're head to wind and there's not much space to maneuver ahead.

The rest of the passage was somewhat anti climatic was we followed a very well marked path of red/green poles in about 30 ft. of water. They describe Maupiti as a "better" Bora Bora, with it's central towering peak, verdant green vegetation, and azure blue lagoon. Only 700 people live on Maupiti, not even big enough to even have their own policeman. But there's no need. Maupiti is like returning to the Bora Bora of fifty years ago, where most residents speak only Tahitian (and French only when the have to) and enjoy as near an idyllic life as exists in the world.

Few sailboats dare to brave the Maupiti Pass, leaving the beautiful quiet lagoon almost to ourselves at times.
We are now anchored in 16 feet of water in the middle of the lagoon. A gentle 6-knot breeze wafts over the boat, and the beautiful, melodic sounds of a Tahitian choir practicing for tomorrow's church service drifts out over the water.

We will spend about a week here waiting for the westerly trade winds to get established again so we can enjoy 15-knot winds for our long passage to Palmerston Island in the Cook Islands. We think it's going to be a great week of snorkeling, SUP'ing, hiking, and relaxing on the boat just reading. Sounds good to us.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Goodbye French Polynesia, Hello Tonga!

It’s been about three weeks since we launched Flying Cloud after her four month storage in Raiatea. In the meanwhile we have been working daily on repairing broken items (very common when a boat is stored for any length of time) and general maintenance.  We were very happy the day she was put into the water so we could start using our refrigeration, water maker and toilets again (and praying that those things worked). Plus, it was weird being on a boat that wasn't moving all the time. Now we're back to our normal. 

We have two outboards so if one doesn't work we can use the other. When we put the boat back in the water neither of the outboards worked. We rowed a lot for a couple of days. Here I am installing a new carb on our 2 hp Yamaha.
We met a wonderful German couple, Barbara and Manfred, from Bonn.  They were kind enough to drive us around in their rental car to get groceries (and mainly ice when the boat was in the yard) and also introduced us to the wonderful Napoli Restaurant with the best food on Raiatea.

While I was out testing the outboard I turned around and saw this behemoth super yacht about to run me down. Turns out it was Barack Obama, Oprah, Bruce Springstein, and Tom Hanks with their respective spouses. I should have asked if they had some Grey Poupon.

We did a short shake-down cruise north up the west coast of Raiatea to the neighboring island of Taha'a, where we stayed at our favorite spot, Coral Gardens. Although it was more windy than usual, we still got in a great snorkel through the Coral Gardens near the fabulous Hotel Taha'a.  

This photo fascinates me. It was after a spectacular sunset (with Bora Bora in the clouds) with this brilliant blue light shining through the sky. I thought aliens had landed somewhere.
We then sailed from Taha'a a short five hours over to Bora Bora, where we got a mooring ball at the MaiKai Marina, home of the fastest (a relative term) Internet in all of French Polynesia. They also have an infinity pool (which we still haven't swum in) and a great Happy Hour.  We spent a couple of days on the east side of the island snorkeling at one of our favorite spots, Boat Pass, where we got the obligatory drive-by from a pair of black-tip sharks. Boat Pass is a nice area since you can snorkel along the edge of huge tabular corals while looking down 50 feet to the depths of the pass (where the big fishies live).

Came around they corner of the southeast side of Bora Bora to see the super yacht Senses anchored and a couple of guys out kite boarding. The yacht is owned by Larry Page who is head of Google. When you make several billion dollars this is one of the things you get to do.

Meryl has done a yeoman's job of repairing various things on the boat. Here she's replacing the stitching that holds in our plastic dodger window, which has disintegrated in the tropical heat.

We’re now back at MaiKai Marina and are ready to depart for the 1,000 mile passage to Tonga.  We have visited the gendarmes (national police) and received our final clearance papers this afternoon. The winds look light for the next two weeks, but since we’ve already checked out we will try to visit the nearby French islands of Maupiti and Maupihaa, then sail to Palmerston Island in the Cooks, then on to Beveridge Reef and the island nation of Niue before arriving in Tonga. That should conservatively take about three weeks if everything goes according to plan (which never happens).

This shows our proposed routing for the next month, from Bora to Maupiti, Maupihaa, Palmerston, Beveridge Reef, Niue, and on to Tonga. I want to publicly state that I stole this incredible graphic off the web site of our friends Mark and Sarah on Field Trip.  Mark is so much better at this stuff than me, I'd encourage everyone to read their blog.
Our conundrum is that we want good winds for the passage (in the 15- to 25-knot range), but light winds and swell during the first week or two so we can possibly visit the islands of Maupiti and Maupihaa.  Maupiti is only a five-hour sail from Bora Bora and is reputed to be one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific. Unfortunately it also has one of the most difficult/dangerous entrances of any island we’ve visited.  Surf breaks on both sides of the entrance and you don’t really see the entrance until you’re almost in the surf line, hence the importance of waiting for a day when the winds are light and the south swell is below five feet. The current always rushes out the pass, running from 3 to 7 knots, which means we'll be motoring in at about 1 or 2 knots net speed. Our plan is to leave early Saturday morning and scout out the entrance. If it looks too hairy, we’ll simply sail on to our second destination, the small island of Maupihaa. Maupihaa (also known as  Mopelia) is about a day and one-half sail further west and has an even more hairy entrance than Maupiti. Again, you need to hit it on the right day. The pass runs like a river and is only 60 feet wide, not much wider than the length of our boat. If it works out right you get a great sleigh ride, if not ...

We are really looking forward to arriving in both Tonga and Fiji, but have a certain amount of trepidation given that this passage is known among sailors as “The Dangerous Middle,” given the spontaneous squalls and other weather events spawned by the South Pacific Convergent Zone and the numerous “unmarked” reefs in the area.  We plan to sail very conservatively, but anticipate that this will be an adventure none the less.

One of the problems all cruisers have is we love to research potential routes and destinations, reading various resource materials and the blogs of other sailboats. Where one blog will say “XYZ has the most dangerous entrance we’ve every seen” the next blog will say “It was like a lake the day we entered, don’t know what all the fuss is about.”  The reality if that weather plays a huge factor in everything and what is a piece of cake on one day can be life threatening on another day.  You have to know your boat, it’s capabilities, and your own capabilities. And then you have to be lucky.

All the islands we plan to visit are rarely visited by tourists and passed by most cruisers.  We’ll just have to see how it goes. Cruisers are typically welcomed with open arms by the islanders who don't see many vistors during a busy year.

We will have no Internet once we leave Bora Bora and will depend on our address using our Iridium Go device while on passage.  If you do send us mail, which we really appreciate, be sure it’s text only -- no graphics, photos, or attachments.

We will be doing something new, however, posting daily or semi-weekly updates via our satellite email system directly to our blog. We won't have the opportunity to post pictures until we get somewhere with good Internet (most likely Tonga or Fiji), but we can backfill the photos at that point.

Stay tuned, we'll let you know how the adventure unfolds.