Tuamotus Are Better Than One

The saying goes that if you can sail in the English Channel you can sail anywhere in the world. I think it’s mainly the English who say so, but nonetheless, funnelling winds, vicious tides, and busy shipping lanes are all promised. Further complication can be added, depending on the mood of the day, by thick fog, torrential rain and the French.

Given we were four miles inland, I suspect the saying was not intended to include the spot in Poole Harbour, where last year Hagg and I spent the best part of two hours trying to attach Blue Eye to her new mooring for the first time that season. And yet, some 13,000-miles later, that day in Poole Harbour remains perhaps our hardest day yet.

Admittedly, we were nursing cataclysmic hangovers. It turns out that the town of Wareham has many a fine establishment to drink in, and we could access these by means of a dinghy trip down the river from Ridge, the boatyard where Blue Eye had spent the winter hauled out. Edging – no, make that crawling – up the river with our little 1.5HP Seagull outboard meant we fell conveniently outside the realms of drink-driving regulations. And subsequently nearly out of the dinghy, after making the most of that fact.

Even had we been fresh for the following day, it would still have been a considerable struggle – rather than a monumental one – to safely attach the pitching Blue Eye to the small yellow buoy. Owing to the 25 knots of wind blowing against a ferocious tide, a far from hangover-friendly sea state boiled around us, all the while a piercing cry from the engine overheat alarm harmonised with the wails of a screaming wind to create a symphony of chaos. By the time we had hooked the mooring at the umpteenth attempt, and hauled it up onto the bow at the expense of a chunk of flesh on Hagg’s hand, we embraced in genuine relief of having overcome the treacherous seas of Poole Harbour.

I remember wondering at the time how we would make it around the world if we could barely make it down the river. And also if the blood oozing from Hagg’s hand would ever come out of my white wet weather gear. It did.

*

We’ve come a long way since then, both in terms of mileage and having an understanding of what to do when the going gets a little tougher. Which was somewhat comforting as – fast-forward 14 months – we were biting our nails approaching Fakarava, the second-largest atoll of the Tuamotus, also known as ‘The Dangerous Archipelago’.

It is nicknamed so because to enter one of the atolls is… well… bloody dangerous. An atoll is a perimeter of coral reef encircling beautiful, turquoise waters, where there actually once – quite unbelievably – sat a volcanic island. But the islands that erupted out of the depths of the ocean millions of years ago have gradually sunk back down to whence they came, under the weight of all the coral that has grown around the perimeter. It is this coral that remains as low-lying borders of land in the middle of a vast sea, and so all that can be seen on approach to the likes of Fakarava are some ostensibly ocean-floating palm trees. It is only when you get close to the atoll that the coral reef, and the small civilisations that exist upon it, come into view.

As such, they are paradise on the inside, but sphincter-relaxingly perilous on the outside. To get into the lagoons, great attention must be paid to how wind and tide are integrating: if they are moving in the same direction, you stand a chance; if they are opposing each other, you do not. That is to say, the object is to not be in the same situation as we had naively found ourselves in at Poole Harbour, so as to avoid steep standing waves that would swallow us up and spit us out most ungraciously. And Fakarava, our choice of atoll, was one of the more forgiving entrances…

It was all a matter of timing. If we arrived too early and the current was still sweeping in, we could be launched through uncontrollably and onto an inner reef; if we arrived too late then the increasing outflowing current would be too much for our little 16HP engine to overcome, and we’d be stuck out in the ocean for some time to come.

Somewhat anticlimactically, it all went rather well. Sorry about that, it is more amusing when things go wrong, I know. Whether our success affords credence to the saying at the top of the page, or to ourselves, or to the notion of choosing more sympathetic atoll entrances, I’m not quite sure. But after a five-day passage from the Marquesas, we were mighty happy to throw the anchor down into the lagoon waters and jump in after it.

It so happened we scrambled straight back out: Brits, after all, have been taught to fear sharks. This was our first chilling experience of swimming amongst them, but it quickly became all we wanted to do once we realised how boring we were to these tourist-acquainted hunters. Quite contrary to how I’d imagined an encounter with a shark, we actually sought them out and gave chase, albeit timidly.

The main challenge of the Tuamotus, therefore, was not so much a nautical or predatory one, as it was a linguistic one. I’d been familiar with the letters T-U-A-M-O-T-U-S thus arranged for some time, having poured wide-eyed over the literature of round the world sailing routes for many months, but had always sort of skipped over the word or pronounced it differently in my head each time… perhaps much like yourselves so far?

Will, however, came to the rescue in taking great delight in saying “Tuamotus are better than one”. It meant nothing at the time (as is the case for much of what comes out of Will’s mouth, incidentally, to which he will himself attest), but it became useful in remembering that Tuamotus was pronounced “Two-ah-motors”, and ‘Two-ah-motors are better than one” transpired to be a very appropriate line for our short but sweet time in the archipelago.

*

The wee 1.5HP Seagull that once enabled us to blow the cobwebs off a few jars in Wareham, has since been replaced by an 8HP Yamaha that can get us to the bar a little quicker. This, however, comes with the drawback of sometimes not taking us anywhere at all, and arriving in the Tuamotus there was scepticism that an engineer who could fix our unreliable outboard lingered amongst the wooden huts of the modest village.

Hagg, however, had the inspired theory that if all of the locals used Yamaha engines, then they must have gotten pretty nifty at bodging them up themselves. This turned out to be absolutely true, as he cajoled a couple of local fishermen into taking a look, and in true Polynesian-style they recognised someone in need of help and so set to work.

Theirs was a strange workshop. Propping up the engine on a beach hut, the men worked under the shade of palm trees with the waves lapping at their toes. Nearby, the local restaurant was throwing fish guts into the lagoon, attracting dozens of black-tipped reef sharks – the same that we had snorkelled with earlier that day – and a tropical atmosphere pervaded as the sun began to climb down from the sky.

Darkness soon fell and the men gestured that it was time for them to eat. They would continue in the morning. Despite their amateurish approach – nonchalantly dropping important parts down into the sand and pulling out strange bits from within and declaring them to be a “mystere”, or mystery – they did appear to be making progress, and so we felt nothing but gratitude for their efforts. Unfortunately, though, this put us in the unenviable position of either having to row the dinghy back to Blue Eye against a formidable tide, or to walk east along the reef and swim the 100 metres or so back home. In the dark.

With nowhere else to go and no one around to take us, we settled that swimming was the best option. We’d swum it several times that day already and it wasn’t far, it was just that in the dark it was unnerving, and the abundance of sharks was something of a niggle too. Resolving one last time that we had little choice, we tied our shoes about our shoulders and clambered into the black waters. Once we’d ascertained the current wouldn’t whisk us away we began a cautious paddle homeward, which soon turned into hasty strokes to get us to safety as soon as possible. This, it transpired, was an error, as we each swam headfirst into an enormous coral bommy that lay in ambush just below the surface. Thankfully, this was all that awaited us that evening.

Fishermen-come-engineers set to work.

The following day we handed over a sack full of fruit to our successful fishermen-engineers. Owing to little rain or fertile ground, the Tuamotus are not conducive to growing fruit and vegetables, and so they are much sought after by the locals. We did not digress that we had only a week before been given more fruit than we knew what to do with by some kindly people in the Marquesas Islands, where conversely fruit is all they have. They had plied us with grapefruit, limes, mangoes, starfruits, breadfruit, ginger, turmeric, basil, and much more, all in return for a bag of sweets that we had wanted to give them anyway. It is the case, then, that our outboard engine was actually fixed for the price of a bag of sweets, which is quite a remarkable thing, and testament to the extraordinary will of the Polynesian people, who do not have much to give but give all that they can nonetheless.

*

The Yamaha outboard was not the only engine problem that would have Hagg pulling his hair out within the blue waters of Fakarava. Days later, when we had started to make our way up through the 30-mile long lagoon, the mothership’s engine cut out in the same moment that we dropped the anchor to a record depth of 16 metres. Normally this would be too far down for us to feel comfortable lowering the hook to (none of us can freedive so far to untangle it if needs be) but the noises the engine was emitting as the revs dropped autonomously were a more pressing consideration at the time.

This was disheartening. Not least for Hagg who had toiled with the same problem over and again, each time feeling like the matter had been sorted until it reared it’s unwelcome head and the work had to be started over. But we were safe at anchor, and we had a dinghy that could take us to cold beer, so we did that instead. Obviously. All the world’s problems are set to rights in pubs and bars, and this was no different for us that evening.

It was owned by a Frenchman called Matthew who had married a local girl and settled down in paradise. He didn’t suit his setting: the tribal tattoo sat awkwardly on his spindly leg and his pale skin shouted tourist rather than resident. But as he sat with Hagg and listened to the woes of our engine, it was clear that the Polynesian spirit lived in his European body. He wanted to help.

“Ah it is cook!” He exclaimed in a thick French accent, after hearing a description of some of the fuel lines leading to the Yanmar 2GM. We stared back at him blankly. Perhaps he’d had too much tropical sun.

Unperturbed, he rattled on. “Yes, we say it is cook! You have this word in English, cook? When the cake is done, it is cook!”

Holding back the smiles spreading across our amused faces, a lengthy exchange ensued in which the word “cook” was repeated so many times that I began to doubt that it was a word at all. It was just a sound that we were all making to try and fix an engine. In the end it became apparent that what Matthew wanted to tell us was that the pipes were old – cooked! – and needed replacing, and he scuttled off to fetch us some that he had out back. This was bewildering in itself because as far as we could tell out back was nothing but ocean battering against the other side of the reef, but low and behold he returned with exactly what we needed. In return, we gifted him some colouring pencils for his young daughter, a T-shirt for him, and some biscuits to fill the snack cupboard that is bare in most houses of the Tuamotus.

We were in a shark-infested lagoon surrounded by nothing other than coral reef and palm trees, where almost nothing can be grown and the only export is the aesthetically pleasing but impractical black pearls. It is remarkable, then, that these people, whose lives rely on infrequent arrivals of a supply ship from Tahiti and the charity of sailors, are themselves the most charitable of human beings.

*

It was in this way that, in the most unlikely of places, both of our engines were fixed in the space of a few days. As we fought our way out of the northern pass of Fakarava and watched our only Tuamotus stop disappear into the horizon behind us, we rued that we had not the time to visit some of the other atolls. Alas, the Society Islands awaited and that was no bad thing, but it’s fair to say two Tuamotus would have been better than one.

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