Cruising Notes


Voyage Summary

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Website of sailing yacht Tokomaru2's circumnavigation of the world

Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in the Tuamotus and the Society Islands   (24 July to 19 Sept)


The passage from the Marquesas Islands to the Tuamotu Islands took 4 days in strong winds.  Our landfall was the island of Rangiroa where Nick’s brother Chris and daughter Ellie were due to arrive on 26 July.  We approached the pass through the circling reef of Rangiroa with some trepidation.  There was a big sea running  (crashing onto the reef in most spectacular fashion!) and the wind was 25 knots, gusting 30.  The way in appeared to be a confusion of steep waves and general turbulence, even though this was supposedly the best time to enter, - at slack water, low tide.   As the water looked far from ‘slack’, we tacked and sailed away to wait a little longer.  But fearing it might become worse, we decided to give it a go.  It was one of our more exciting experiences as we ran the gauntlet of the waves and fought against 5 knots of current, but we eventually made it into the huge quiet lagoon - (dolphins leaping alongside were a welcome distraction!).  Locals later explained that strong winds raise the water level in the lagoon so it runs out for longer, continuing to run out after the tide is going in – hence the turbulence after slack water.  In fact people were declaring this year to be the worst weather conditions for 20 years.   Chris and Ellie arrived, the wind dropped and we had some gorgeous days swimming and snorkelling and exploring the narrow strip of land between the ocean and the lagoon.  This was our first ‘south seas’ lagoon and very nice it was, with coral gardens and amazing reef fish.


                                            Water front Papeete

When we left Rangiroa to sail for Tahiti (Society Islands), 200 miles to the south west, the pass was calm and we sailed out into a flat sea.  How conditions can change!   The wind remained light so progress was slow, with barely enough breeze to fill the sails.  It was very pleasant, slipping peacefully along under the stars, but eventually we started the engine, and motored the last 75 miles to get in to Pape’ete, the capital of Tahiti, with plenty of daylight to negotiate the buoyed channel through the reef.  Tahiti is a high island like the Marquesas, but unlike the Marquesas (and like the Tuamotus) it is encircled by a barrier reef, with a number of gaps through.   On all these islands, once through the reef, you are in the clear, calm waters of a beautiful lagoon fringed by leaning palms, with the roar of the surf in the background.  However, in this instance, we headed for the busy harbour of Pape’ete and tied stern-to on the town quay.  Here, the water was neither calm nor clear:  ferries whizzing past, the commotion of container ships loading and unloading, the mayhem of a  building site for a park to commemorate Jacques Chirac (Jacques Chirac!!) -all a bit of a culture shock.  But the advantages of town life are many:  laundry, post, banks, email, well-stocked supermarkets, fresh water, petrol, diesel, so we got stuck in.  Actually, Nick, Chris and Ellie did all the work as I was laid up with a septic foot, infected by coral in Rangiroa.  Chris and Ellie also energetically trekked up the Fautaua Valley to a waterfall, and caught buses along the coast in search of beaches.


From Tahiti we sailed to the island of Moorea and anchored in Opunohu Bay, a deep inlet framed by dramatic peaks, and the most stunning anchorage yet.    (I keep saying that!)  ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ was filmed here.  At night, the skyline was spectacular, like someone’s romantic/gothic fantasy of a mountain range, lit by a full moon.   As we sat in the cockpit the amazing view would slowly change as the boat swung in the wind.  Chris liked to call this our revolving restaurant!   And  anchored in 10 metres just inside the reef, we could see clear to the bottom in the moon light as well.  By day, walking up the valley we found more maraes, the stone platforms formerly used for ceremonies.  It seems archaeologists are continually finding evidence of habitation and sites of maraes on the islands.  We met some Polynesians working in the forest who told us that when Cook came to Moorea in 1777 the population just around the bay was 20,000.  Today the population of the whole island is 12,000.    The reasons for this are many, but it was largely due to the arrival of Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing disease.  The London Missionary Society appears to have been particularly zealous in wanting to stamp out the ‘pagan’ culture and many fine artefacts were destroyed.   Today every village has an active Protestant church.


We left the beautiful island of Moorea to sail back to Tahiti as Chris and Ellie’s time was up.  We anchored inside the reef near the airport (you have to get clearance from harbour control before sailing past the end of the runway!) and after one last swim, they went off to begin the long flight home.  Nick and I took advantage once more of the joys(?) of shops and services, spent an interesting morning at the Gauguin museum,  then sailed off to visit some more Society Islands.  These are the leeward islands, 100 miles west of Tahiti, where  Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora are grouped together.

We found Huahine and Tahaa so peaceful and relaxing it was hard to move on.  Small communities live in villages on the shores of the lagoon in richly fertile valleys and we have met the most friendly and easy-going people of all our travels.  There’s  minimal public transport (in the form of ‘le truck’) but anyone passing will ask if you want a lift.  Farming and fishing are the main occupations, with little tourism as yet.   On Huahine we saw stone fish traps, centuries old, still in use.  Pearl farming is an important part of the economy and the thatched huts perched on stilts out in the lagoon are very picturesque. As everywhere in Polynesia, there was much canoeing, the national sport.  There are six to a canoe, paddling on alternate sides.   A familiar sound in the late afternoon was the quiet, steady call of the leader, and the soft swish of these slender craft speeding through the water.  A fine sight too as they come skimming back through the pass at sunset, strong arms and backs moving in unison, silhouetted against the light.  The island of Raiatea is associated with legends of Polynesian migration.   It is likely that the Maori people set out from here for New Zealand in their big voyaging canoes, navigating by the ocean swells and the stars.  Incidentally, one of these canoes might have been named ‘Tokomaru’ as we are told that Tokomaru Bay in New Zealand was named after a canoe.  On Huahine we hired bikes for a couple of days and went around the island, stopping to see the archaeological sites.  They have reconstructed a marae platform complete with traditional buildings of wood and woven pandanus, a kind of palm.  Also, lots of ceremonial artefacts and objects of worship.  One of these is called a to’o (the missing letter being a ‘k’).   We are always trying to find out what Tokomaru means!  


On the next island,Taha’a, we sailed up a deep inlet to the village of Haamene. This made a change from anchoring in aquamarine, gin-clear water near the reefs.  It was more like a fjord, cutting two miles inland and bending round out of sight and sound of the sea to a most peaceful, rural anchorage, albeit in brown water.  We rose early next morning to walk across the island over a mountain pass.  Ashore by 7.00am we saw children and teachers arriving at the school.  It all looked wonderfully casual, teachers in shorts and flip flops,  everyone happily greeting everyone else as if on holiday!  (two teachers had arrived by boat).  Still, we didn’t really envy those teachers as we set off on our climb through the shady forest, the path bordered by all manner of wild flowers including the pale purple orchid.  From the ridge at the top we had a fine view of our yacht lying in the bay, with ‘Leto’.   Down the other side, (the north face of the mountain and therefore the sunny side!) it was more cultivated: coconut palms, banana plantations, pineapples, papaya, and vanilla.   A farmer stopped his truck to offer a lift to the next village.  He produced vanilla flowers (orchid family) from his pocket and explained the long process from flower to pod, which takes nine months.  In the village, he showed us the pods drying in the sun, which takes three months.   We have loads of pods on board now and the strong scent of vanilla masks the less pleasant boaty smells of mouldy dust and mildew.


                                    "Leto" leaving Bora Bora   

Talking of smells, Polynesians love gardening and walking anywhere is a delight.  The national flower, the tiare (gardenia) is everywhere.  It’s a simple white flower with a wonderful scent and they use it to make garlands.  Hibiscus (every hybrid) is rampant along the roadsides, along with other exotic trees and flowers: frangipani, bougainvillia, camellia, marigolds and colourful leafy shrubs.   People’s houses are surrounded by pot plants, in pots apparently to protect them from land crabs.  They are lovingly tended, huge and glossy;  round here people enter their plants for competitions!


From Raiatea and Tahaa (two islands within one circling reef) we sailed to Bora Bora, which is supposedly the most beautiful island in the South Pacific.  It certainly looks stunning from a distance, - two peaks rising steeply into the clouds.   Close to it’s less impressive, but it’s interesting because you can see how a volcanic island  eventually becomes an atoll.   Bora Bora is half way through the process.  The lagoon inside the barrier reef is already wide and the original volcano, formed millions of years ago, is gradually collapsing and sinking into the sea.  Meanwhile the coral grows up around the outside to form the encircling reef.  In another few million years the mountain will have disappeared and Bora Bora will be an atoll, just a deep lagoon surrounded by reef.   Darwin apparently figured this out and the theory still stands.  As well as sinking, the high volcano attracts rain clouds and the erosion leaves these remarkable hard rock peaks which make the islands so dramatic.


The Society Islands have been perfect for sailing.  Other than fairly short hops through the ocean from one island to the next, we’ve been sailing around in  sheltered blue/turquoise/jade waters inside the reef, with marvellous scenery to look at and charming people ashore.    But now it’s time to move on.  Our next stop is the Cook Islands,  500 miles to the south west, where we plan to stop at Rarotonga.   We hope you are still enjoying warm September days in sunny Europe.  Best wishes from Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008