Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A few of the Things I've Learned

When we checked in with the Gendarm in Hiva Oa, they gave us a color glossy magazine on cruising French Polynesia. It was filled with ads from restaurants, dive operators, WiFi internet providers, marine chandleries, etc. Of course, there was brief letter from some bureaucrat in the Tourism Office welcoming all of us to their paradise. It encouraged us to have a good time. There are articles about the various areas in which to cruise (there are five of them: Marquesas, Gambier, Austral, Tuamotu and Societies) and there are comments on the level of difficulty, from a navigation point of view, that each one represents. It says that the Marquesas and Societies are easy and for the Tuamotus it says to 'use caution'. My guess is that at some point there was a discussion between the bureaucrat and an editor somewhere as to what word to use. Using 'dangerous' or 'difficult' might scare a potential cruiser from visiting the islands. By saying 'use caution' they can safely claim they provided a warning yet still managed to appease those who earn a living from visiting cruisers. Maybe.

Since the entering of our first pass in the Tuamotus occurred after a 4-day, 500-mile passage, I was no more than cautious. At that point I was craving sleep badly and was looking forward to having calm water to anchor in - something we hadn't had since we left the marina in Mexico. I had envisioned a narrow pass with water boiling from the tidal currents. My imagination would paint visions of Rutea being spun by the powerful current and her rudder unresponsive even under full engine power. I'd try to make contingency plans as to what I would do under those circumstances: Stay calm, don't shout, perhaps deploy an anchor, etc. But as we approached the entrance to the pass I saw that it was quite wide and the water appeared to be flat calm. Granted, the northeast entrance to Makemo is probably one of the easier entrances to make in the Tuamotus but the guide books don't say that. It was a huge relief to be able to enter the area just west of the pass and anchor. While Ruthie and Corie went into the village (they got a ride in with Mark and Yuka on Merkava), I slept very hard.

Our anchor wasn't well set so after Ruthie and Corie returned we decided to move to a spot on the southeast edge of the lagoon that she had read about on another cruiser's blog. We had the coordinates of the recommended spot but nothing else so we took off towards it just the same. Here was where I had to face another one of my concerns: The guide books are filled with warnings about the coral heads throughout the lagoons in the Tuamotus. Rising up from nowhere, these coral formations are as hard as concrete and could easily cause serious damage to a sailboat. What the guide books don't say is what they look like, what one should look for. As we began our 8-mile crossing to the other side of the lagoon, I stood on the bow (as per the suggestion of the guide books) and strained to see one of these evil coral heads. Every time the water changed shade, I would point for Ruthie to steer the boat away. It wasn't until I actually saw a coral head that I was able to relax.

The water here is extremely clear with visibility of easily 40-50 feet. As the water gets shallow, the color changes from a deep blue (reminds me of the color of our old Mercedes station wagon - called Midnight Blue) to the palest shade of blue imaginable. Since the coral heads are near the surface, the color difference is striking. This was a huge revelation to me. No longer were the coral heads these predatory demons out to sink the boat but rather something that you had to keep your eye out for. If you can't see them, then they're harmless. The angle of the sun to the boat's direction of travel makes them easier or more difficult to see but in the early afternoon we had no trouble navigating our way across the lagoon, dodging many coral heads on the way, to a beautiful secure spot where we are now. Of course, attempting to navigate at night would be lunacy.

One of the other things I learned is that I'm afraid to swim with sharks. Yesterday we took the dink out to a coral head and began to snorkel around, Ruthie and Corie went first while I kept the dinghy nearby. Ruthie returned and while I was donning my mask and fins, Corie came over and said she spotted a shark. Ruthie put her mask back on and stuck her head under water. "I saw it!" she exclaimed, a big smile on her face. Corie dove back down. I wasn't too worried about it at the time so I slid over and began to swim around the coral head. It was beautiful and the spectacular fish around me breath-taking. But then I looked down and about 20 feet away was a 4-foot reef shark, looking at me. At least, it looked like it was looking at me. It's movements were slow and didn't seem to be agitated. But I was uncomfortable. I started to head back to the dinghy even though I had only been in the water a few mintutes. I looked back at the shark. Now there were two of them looking at me. I poked my head out of the water and motioned for Ruthie to come over in the dink. She slowly turned the dink in my direction. I made a much more emphatic motion her to come more quickly (I did not say a bad word but the thought had come to my racing mind). I tried to be nonchalant as I climbed back aboard. What an education!
At 5/11/2011 9:17 PM (utc) Rutea's position was 16°42.58'S 143°27.87'W

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