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Sunday, June 29, 2008


This is our view of Makemo atoll as we’re approaching the pass. We’ve got the main and jib furled and are jogging along under staysail alone towards the entrance, waiting for slack water. The passes into the Tuamotu lagoons have bad reputations. The lagoons are big and the passes are narrow, so the tides create strong, turbulent currents. If you hit slack water, though, everything is fine.

The notable thing about our arrival in Makemo was how badly we screwed up the anchoring. After we made the pass and pulled up in front of the village of Pouheva we dropped the hook and found that the anchor chain had fouled itself during the passage. The anchor dropped until it was just touching the bottom and then the chain stuck below decks. By the time Alisa and I had freed the chain we had dragged and were way too close to a big catamaran that was already anchored. We tried to pull the anchor to move away from the cat and found that our anchor had hooked their chain. Bad feeling. We tried pulling our chain as tight as we could with the windlass, until Pelagic shuddered with the strain and our anchor was holding the cat’s chain up off the bottom. Then we let go of our chain all at once, hoping that our anchor would swim out from under their chain as it fell to the bottom. We tried this a couple times without success, and each time the wind pushed us down closer to the cat’s bows.

Meanwhile, Elias was hollering his head off in his car seat in the cockpit. We were tired from being up most of the night before. And, well, everything generally sucked. But on the third try our anchor swung free.

It must sometimes seem to the casual reader of this blog that Alisa and I are lurching our way from minor crisis to minor crisis as we cross the Pacific. Let me assure you that it rarely seems that way to us. But things aboard were tense enough at this point that when we finally had our anchor back Alisa looked up at me and said, “Maybe the Tuamotus aren’t for us. Maybe we should just go back out the pass and keep going.”

Luckily Alisa took Elias below to try to get him to nap and I took the opportunity to throw the anchor in again, this time a long long way upwind of the cat. But the anchor just dragged across the bottom without setting, even though the chain ran free this time, and we ended up dragging down on the cat again. So we pulled the anchor once more, with Elias going through a total meltdown in his bunk.

The bottom was sprinkled with coral heads that had the potential to snag our chain, and we had been trying to anchor in relatively shallow water so that we had a chance to dive down and free the chain if we did get stuck. “Screw it,” I said to Alisa. “I’m just going out to ten fathoms and dropping it. If we do get stuck, at least we’re next to a village where half the men can probably dive to sixty feet.”

Prophetic words, as it turned out.

We went ashore in Pouheva the next afternoon. It probably wasn’t a representative visit, since the Marquesas are very much a morning place, and the Tuamotus are likely the same. But the village felt deserted, even though there were lots of kids in the schools that we walked by, suggesting that there must be a corresponding adult population somewhere. Jared Diamond included an interesting comparison of the geography and social development of various Polynesian islands in Guns, Germs and Steel. He concluded that high volcanic islands suh as the Marquesas, which provide raw materials like basalt for tools and land suitable for irrigation, fostered the growth of hierarchical societies with entire classes of people who did not produce food, like chiefs and priests and artisans, while low atolls like the Tuamotus, without many raw materials or the rain or soil for intensive agriculture, produced more loosely organized societies with less distinction between commoner and noble, where everyone worked at producing food. Seeing somnolent Pouheva, and remembering the vibrancy of a small Marquesan village like Haukehetau, it was easy to imagine that strong cultural differences persist between the two archipelagos, despite their close proximity and recently derived ancestry.

But we didn’t stick around long enough to get to know Pouheva. We smiled at a few people and bought a juice at a little store that sat off the road next to a tiny cut through the motu, or island, that the village rested on, the cut tidal and clean blue and full of interesting fish, with a bridge over it that little kids apparently jumped off of for the better part of the day. And how many generations has it been since little kids jumped off bridges into creeks in the towns of Ohio, where Alisa and I come from? When we were ready to return to Pelagic a squall was blowing across the atoll and cutting up a little surf across the reef entrance that we would have to row through to regain the lagoon where Pelagic was anchored. We decided to wait until the squall was past and went back to the store porch to get out of the rain that began to fall from the black black cloud that was suddenly overhead. The friendly clerk came out to see what we wanted and told us it was fine to wait on the porch. And fifteen minutes later when the squall was dying down and I walked out to the shore to look at the reef and the lagoon to see if we could row back, the clerk followed me out and asked if we wanted a ride back to Pelagic. Some friends of his had just returned to town in their motor boat and they would be glad to give us a lift, he would just go and tell them.

There may be nicer people out there than Polynesians, though I would have to meet them to believe it. But we didn’t even try to get down with the people in Pouheva, we spent just that one afternoon ashore and the next day we shoved off for the uninhabited western part of the atoll.

Alisa ashore in Pouheva village, Makemo atoll. Is it my imagination, or is she starting to look a little French?

The word that we hear other sailors using to describe Tuamotu villages over and over is “sleepy”. A fitting adjective while the family was ashore in Pouheva, though that was only for a few hours one afternoon.

Or at least that was our intention. We knew that our anchor chain had been grinding on some coral heads. On the morning we tried to pull the anchor I dove on it and found the chain completely wrapped around a head. We tried driving the boat around in a circle to free the chain while we pulled with the windlass. After an hour of trying this we were as stuck as ever. The water was more than sixty feet deep. I had to dive pretty deep to even be able to see the chain, and what I could see wasn’t good – after all our effort, the chain was more tangled than when we had started. A big chop was blowing into the anchorage from across the atoll and Pelagic was rearing and snorting at the chain and we could hear the chain grinding against the coral and we were stuck there, unable to move – a very bad feeling in a boat, which owes everything to its abilities for motion.

So I rowed into the village looking for help. And in an odd way that turned out to be a good thing. I went to the little store by the side of the cut, looking for the friendly clerk who spoke English. I found out that his name was Augustin, and as soon as he heard my story he locked the store and took me in his truck to go find a diver. He might have been about to close the store for lunch time anyway, but it still made a strong impression on me. We drove around with another guy named Prospero and looked first at the school where the diver taught and then at the diver’s home. In a small village where you are utterly a stranger and don’t speak either language in currency, there are few things that are more satisfying then riding around in the car of a local. Suddenly the veiled glances and restrained smiles with which humanity greets an outsider are replaced by the warm grins of friendship from the people who shout out to the car as you drive by, and you see the villagers revealed as they see each other. Good fun.

We found Ludo, a curly-haired, lithe Frenchman who has lived on Makemo for seven years and who runs a little tourist dive operation in Pouheva. His day job is as a sports teacher at the professional school in Pouheva. After Phillipe on Ua Pou, Ludo was the second expat sports teacher in French Polynesia to befriend us. Both of them made excuses for their poor English, but both were conversant in the language. This impressed monoglot Alisa and me to no end – gym teachers who speak foreign languages! I have decided that many of the problems of our own country would solve themselves if the majority of American gym teachers could speak a second language.

Anyway, Ludo was available to come out and free us an hour later. When I asked if we could pay him for his time he said, no, I am doing this to help you. He ended up being under water for quite a while, and when he came up he reported that our chain had been wrapped two times around the same head. So much for our efforts to free ourselves. I was so so happy to see our anchor finally come out of the water and onto our bow, and I told Ludo so. He rode with us to another spot closer in where we would be able to free ourselves if we got stuck again and then dove after we were reanchored to make sure that the anchor was set and the chain was free of obstructions. He wouldn’t even have a beer with us when he was done, but we did send him home with some of our Marquesan fruit, well appreciated.

All this grinding on coral is bad for the barky, and really bad for the coral. We’ve since mastered a few tricks that greatly reduce our incidence of coral tangling.

By the time we were reanchored and I had rowed Ludo back ashore it was too late in the day to leave – you need the sun high in the sky, preferably behind you, when sailing in an atoll lagoon so that you can see the shallow reefs before you hit them. So we finally got going the next day and sailed just a few miles down to the other end of the atoll.

When we started reading up about the Tuamotus before our arrival, we decided that while the Marquesas were about the people that we met, the Tuamotus would be a chance for us to reduce the size of our social universe and tend our own gardens. To get down with ourselves, and the reefs and the birds, as it were, and not with the people. To live for a few weeks in one of the more spectacular places on the planet, as a family, self sufficient, on our little boat. And on the west end of Makemo, that vision began to come to life.

The anchorage on the west end.

Elias abandoned himself to the delights of picking up stray coconuts on the beach.
I knew that the islands forming an atoll were made from coral, but it was something else to get to one and look under my feet and see nothing but raw hunks of dead coral. On many of the motus we visited, that’s about all there was, in unimaginable quantities when you think about the little colonial symbionts that make the stuff.

The seaward side of the atoll.
Looking towards the seaward side. In the background is a HUGE storm berm of dead coral. I figure waves big enough to pile up so much coral must only come from hurricanes, and that thought made me realize how those infrequent storms have real implications for the landscape on such low islands.

A blacktip reef shark, Carcharhinus melanopterus, cruising the shore.

A highlight of Makemo was hanging out with Macy who we had met briefly in Nuku Hiva. Making quick friendships in remote places is one of the great part of this new life of ours; losing track of those friends just as quickly one of the great drawbacks.

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