The Pacific Diaries

The Dangerous Archipelago

15 June 2005

It is time for us to leave for the Tuamotos, the “Dangerous Archipelago” of such fearsome reputation that, before GPS, many yachts would take the long detour North to avoid them entirely. I can think of few places that better illustrate the extent to which modern technology has reduced the degree of seamanship required to undertake a voyage of this kind. ( Right up to the moment that the technology stops working that is! )

30 years ago, arriving from a position derived from sextant and dead reckoning, running, without radar, towards huge reefs awash and nothing taller than a palm tree ahead, night watch searching the horizon for the telltale white flash of a breaking reef in the moonlight, straining their ears to catch a warning roar of surf, this was not an experience for the fainthearted.

Even for a yacht as blessed with electronics as La Novia, this is still not a trip to be undertaken casually and I am more nervous about this passage than any we have undertaken since leaving England. The bottom line is that you need a navigation plan that allows you a chance to confirm your position independently of the GPS as you approach the danger zone, in a position where you can still turn around in safety if things are going wrong. This is a very long way from help if you park your boat on one of the myriad reefs waiting for you. We decide to use an approach waypoint on the ocean side of the Island of Tairo, which is one of the few spots in the Tuamotos high enough to be visible on radar.

550 miles from Nuku Hiva, an hour before dawn our radar picked up the Island 15 miles ahead of us at exactly the range and bearing that both our satellite navigation and our dead reckoning expected. As dawn broke we could see it on the horizon 8 miles ahead. I confess to experiencing some degree of relief at this unstressed landfall, electronics or not.

Once we have found the pass into Kauehi’s lagoon, the technology ceases to be of much use. Even though we are close to slack water, a 4 knot current is running out of the pass and the sea in its entrance is a maelstrom as the current meets the onshore breeze. Fortunately, there is only one obstacle to miss inside the pass and plenty of room around it, so we can attack the pass at full speed and clear the zone of breaking waves and sucking whirlpools to enter calm of the lagoon. Once inside, constant vigilance is required while navigating in the 8 mile diameter lagoon. It is largely deep and safe but uncharted ‘Bombs’ are scattered around - coral pillars that rise to just under the surface from up to 100 ‘ of water.

If I was to be completely honest, I might admit that we may have very slightly underestimated the extent to which these Bombs are uncharted. On the other hand, we did not underestimate this for very long! It would be no exageration to say that all complacency evaporated in a flash as the first coral pillar, perfectly cylindrical and about 30 feet across, materialised 20 feet to starboard of us at 6 knots and we experienced a “where the hell did that come from?” moment!

Catherine takes up residence on the bow for all movements in the lagoon.

Lords of the Flies

20 June 2005

The Tuamotos are supposed to be a ‘ remoteness’ experience. But it didn’t quite work out that way. The grapevine had been working overtime and Kauehi had been chosen for a gathering of the kiddie boats. Seven boats and 15 children showed up at a deserted motu in the SE corner of the atoll.

After a token attempt at exerting some degree of supervision, the parents faced reality and the whole thing slid into a prolonged scene out of Lord of the Flies. George described it best in his diary:

“We are in the Tuamotos at an Atol called Kauehi. It is paradise and the swimming here is perfect. From the boat the sand on the beach looks white and the sea a blue blue. We made a fire on the beach ther were lots of children. Just as it was geting dark we all saw 1 black tip shark then we saw 10 baby black tip sharks.”

Back in the World, the newspapers are full of anxious discussions of the effects of depriving children of independence and risk as they grow up. Kids in London can no longer walk to school, no longer disappear with their friends on their bikes for the day, no longer build tree houses (and fall out of them) as I did as a boy. The same parents who fret about their children’s obsession with a virtual world of electronic games prevent those children from doing anything interesting in the real world because of both real and sometimes imagined dangers.

Here on a South Sea Island, the children retreated into a virtual world - one of camp fires and dens, sailing dinghies and armies, weapons and battles. Virtually no discipline was either possible or required, although against all odds George succeeded in being awarded 20 lines ( “I must not have swordfights with burning sticks” ). It was a tropical Swallows and Amazons come to life to horrify the army of Nanny-State busy bodies that western tax payers employ to tell them how to bring up their children. Yet, for all this irresponsible parenting, no one got hurt, beyond a few bangs and scrapes which they were too busy to notice. The most extraordinary part of the experience for us was seeing how quickly and intelligently the children took responsibility for their own safety when given the chance to do so.

A couple of hardcore cruising boats arrived at this isolated spot, stayed horrorstruck for a few hours and fled. The HF radio nets started putting out a warning to other boats:

‘Kauehi is taken over with children running wild. Keep clear!’ After that we had it to ourselves.

When the wind shifted north we moved to the village at the other end of the atoll to get to know the locals, organise a kids’ football match against the local team and look at the pearl farms. I think Vinnie Jones must have visited this place. The local kids had the art of the professional foul off to a tee.

The Curse of the Pearl

22 June 2005

I am not normally superstitious. I believe in science, in the laws of probability and the evidence of the senses. These tell me that in matters of chance, past outcomes do not affect future probabilities. But I am a sailor too, so I obviously also believe in the idea of a “Jonah” and keep my eyes open at all times for any sign of one aboard.

Now Pearl farming is a godsend to the people here and has taken over as virtually the sole economic activity in the Tuamotos.

The price of Copra is so low that the effort involved in producing it is nowhere near rewarded. The Japanese have pillaged the Pacific fisheries so ruthlessly that local fishermen cannot make a living offshore and French Nuclear Testing in the Eastern Tuamotus spread Ciguatera poisoning throughout the atolls and shores of French Polynesia destroying the economic value of the inshore and atoll fisheries that had supported people here for a millennium.

The pearl farms employ almost everyone. Without pearl farming, there would be nothing left except for a social security cheque from France.

The detail of the process is truly wonderous to see. The oysters are nurtured with amazing care, producing a pearl every 14 months which is carefully removed
without harm to the oyster and replaced with a fresh seed - a perfectly machined sphere of reconstituted mother of pearl ranging in size from a tiny pea to a small marble. The oyster coats this sphere with its own outer skin and another pearl is born. The water temperature, Ph balance and nutritional content are perfect for the oysters and every inhabited atoll is now being farmed for the characteristic greenish grey “Black” pearls.

I have been trying to give my wife some decent pearls ever since I can remember. The first fiasco was at the time of our wedding. I cannot even remember what went wrong. Then I tried again when George was born, only to have it all end in recrimination. This time it would be different. Here we were in Pearl Central, anchored in a lagoon with a pearl farm, its Japanese manager and 250,000 oysters. What could possibly go wrong?

We toured the farm, got to know the quality issues, haggled a bit on the prices and went back to the boat to make up our minds. Having decided to go the whole hog and do it well, we returned in the morning to make the Big Purchase at the farm office.

Which had closed for the season…

I have a feeling that I might be a Pearl Jonah… As George said with some relish and quite a decent stab at Capt’ Jack Sparrow’s mangled tones:

“It’s the Curse of the Black Pearl, Dad”.