Toward Tahiti

Tahiti conjures up many romantic thoughts, and has been a destination for sailors since the days of Captain Bligh.

As I mentioned in the last post, the sea was bashing Next Chapter around as I sailed away from Nuku Hiva, and into short confused seas coming up from the south. I had expected it to be rough, and had prepared the boat accordingly, putting away, tying things down and jamming spare shorts between bottles and jars. I don’t mind it roughing up a bit as long as I am prepared. During the following two days, the south-easterly swell gradually dropped away, and, combined with a slight increase in wind strength from the ENE, things became more manageable and there was much less slamming of sails. The sailing was not fast, but I was content to be making about four knots on course.

There was little life in this part of the ocean, no ships, dolphins or whales, only an occasional lone booby or a handful of flying fish. However, I did sail in company with another yacht for most of the third day, and well into the night. It was the first time I had experienced this so far from land. They appeared to be tacking downwind, crossing my stern twice before sailing out of sight to the southeast around midnight.

I was disappointed to find that another row of stitching had gone on the mainsail. I rolled the sail in until the opened seam was inside the mast, then for the rest of the day I limped along under a double reefed main, and a poled-out yankee, trying not very successfully to run dead before the wind. Having such a reduced mainsail cut the speed from five and a half, to three knots. There was no option. I needed the full sail so would have to drop it and hand sew it. The in-mast furling mainsail is good in many regards, but is a pain in the ass if you have to drop the main at sea, especially having to deal with the vertical battens, the longest of which is fifty-five feet. I spent five hours re-stitching the seam, ending up with a sore starboard hand. But, when it was back in place, I was sailing properly again. Then the wind died.

tahiti lies somewhere over there

On day four, the Tuamotu Islands, lay just thirty miles ahead. Magellan knew them as the Dangerous Archipelago, due to the number of atolls and reefs, and the number of boats lost on them. Covering an area the size of Western Europe, it must have come as quite a surprise to the early navigators to find such a vast area of reef after so much deep and empty ocean. French nuclear weapons testing on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa also made them quite dangerous at times. The atolls stretched far to the east and west of my position, acting as a barrier to the persistent south and southeast swells, and giving me a rare taste of sailing in calm waters. The sea was slight, the wind even slighter, but Next Chapter was moving along at four knots without being rolled around.

I passed between Manihi and Takapoto atolls, giving them a wide berth before turning to the west-southwest and heading for the pass on the eastern end of Rangiroa, one hundred miles to the west. I tried to remember when I had last sailed without a tiresome cross-swell, but it was too long ago to recall. Somewhere in the Caribbean possibly. Even whilst I was anchored at Nuku Hiva, there was a constant swell coming into the bay, which is exposed to the south, and some days that swell and subsequent rolling was worse than being at sea.

As I sailed toward Rangiroa, in the midst of this multitude of atolls and reefs, the ocean was teaming with life again. The spectacular golden blue mahi mahi leapt in the air landing amongst its prey, scattering them in all directions. Great squadrons of flying-fish took to the air, sometimes flying fifty meters or more then banking to one side before folding their wings as they slammed back into the water, sounding like a shower of heavy raindrops. Frigates, boobies and turns hovered, then swarmed in to get the scraps left by the mahi mahi and tuna. There were sharks too; their tell-tale fins occasionally breaking the surface. A dead bird drifted past and I wondered how long before a shark or other predator took it. I know if I ever fell in it would take them mere seconds. I think about trailing a lure and fishing for one of these nice plump tuna, but I just don’t feel like killing anything out here.

The full moon dipped into the ocean to the west as Next Chapter glided quietly along through the night. We passed the eastern end of Rangiroa before dawn, and then headed south, leaving the low-laying Tuamotu Islands behind and edging towards Tahiti, two hundred miles to the south-southwest.

Tahiti

The sun rose red and hard-edged from a calm ocean into a perfectly clear sky, Tahiti laying just seventy miles ahead. For what wind there was it might as well have been seven hundred. It was no hardship sitting there. The surface of the ocean was flat, gilded and shimmering with the early morning light. There were no waves, just the barely discernible swell less than two feet high. Long and easy like the slow, regular breathing of the sleeping ocean. A booby would soar past on silent wings, never uttering a cry, but ever vigilant for a careless flying fish, or scraps left by the feeding mahi mahi and tuna that stir the stilled surface as they hunt.

If it were not for a demanding schedule, it would have been easy to sit in the stillness and wait for wind. It would have been easy to drop into the deep blue ocean for a swim. Although whenever I think about swimming mid ocean, which is not often, I remember how frequently I have seen ‘the fin’ during these periods of calm. They seem ever present, and the possibility is enough to keep me dry another day. And so with a flat ocean, no wind and adequate fuel, I motored the remaining seventy miles to Papeete, keeping the speed down to about three knots so as to time my arrival for the following morning. Throughout that twenty-four hour period there was not one breath of wind to ruffle the water or tempt a sail to fill. Next Chapter left her straight and even wake that stretched undisturbed toward the hazy northern horizon. I did not mind there being no wind. I was quite happy dribbling along with the engine across the tranquil ocean, having nothing to do but look around for ships once in a while.

Two hundred metres before the entrance markers of Papeete Harbour, two adult humpback whales surfaced beside me. One of them dived so close to the boat, I felt I could have reached out and touched its huge tail. As the humpbacks moved away and I continued into the harbour, a few dolphins came to play. It was a wonderful way to draw to a close what was a very enjoyable short passage.

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