When it comes to exploring the South Pacific, the Tuamotus - located in the heart of French Polynesia - has reputation among sailors that has long since earned them the nickname of the “Dangerous Archipelago”.
Forming the largest group of coral atolls in the world, all but one of the 77 atolls are low-lying. Barely rising above sea level, they are made up of large fringing reefs that encircle tiny motus (islands) and a lagoon. They are so difficult to spot, it’s no wonder their reefs and currents caused many a shipwreck in bygone days.
For a skipper, the lack of landmarks and need for eyeball navigation, especially in the narrower passes, can make entering an atoll tricky. Timing arrival to coincide with a slack tide is recommended as the difference in water height between the inside and the outside of the lagoon creates strong currents, which can result in dangerous overfalls (standing waves in the channel).
Heeding their ‘dangerous’ reputation, some cruisers barely deviate from the well-marked passes of the two largest atolls of Rangiroa and Fakarava. These popular atolls have passes big enough for cruise ships to enter, marked channels to the main village, good provisioning and access to a 4G network.
We enjoyed our time exploring both atolls. Rangiroa is well-known for its friendly dolphins, abundant fish and beautiful Blue Lagoon; whereas at Fakarava, people congregate at the South Pass to dive or snorkel with a vast array of sharks.
While extra care must be taken when passage planning in the Tuamotus, especially when sailing at night, a confident skipper is all it needs to venture further afield and away from the madding crowds.
Armed with Google satellite images of the atolls, approximate tide and current times for the passes and up-to-date charts, we set off on Two Drifters to explore some of the lesser-visited atolls.
Once safely in through the various atoll passes, it was like entering Narnia; with a completely different world emerging in the lagoons beyond.
A good light and someone on the foredeck are essential when heading across the lagoons to the anchorages, as there are many unmarked coral heads (nicknamed ‘bommies’) submerged just below the surface.
Our highlights of the Tuamotus include:
Aratika is an easy day sail northeast of Fakarava. Few venture through its narrow West Pass, but it’s a ‘must-visit’ atoll for anyone who loves the water. Drift snorkelling in the East Pass is magical as it’s rich with fish, rays, turtles and sharks and has a fascinating topography incorporating canyons, crannies and healthy coral.
There are a dozen large yellow mooring buoys, located between the two passes and at the village. These were in good condition and free to use. We visited Aratika twice; both times we were the only sailboat enjoying the beautiful atoll.
Another gem, within a day sail of Fakarava, is Kauehi. What’s not to love with sandy anchorages, stunning water colour and an interesting underwater world to snorkel?
On land, there’s a track spanning 10 miles, which leads to village and is accessible from the anchorages on the main motu. With palm trees offering shade and lagoon and ocean side views, it’s a great place to explore on foot.
Located 49 miles south west of Rangiroa, Makatea is unique in the Tuamotus as it doesn’t take the form of a typical atoll. Instead, its spectacular cliffs soar 80 metres above sea level to reach a flat plateau, where the island's incredibly friendly inhabitants live.
Anchoring is impossible due to the depths and lack of a lagoon, but there are three free mooring buoys. Their proximity to land is quite close, so this is not a place to visit when the winds are in a strong westerly direction.
The island spans just over nine square miles and offers great hikes and rock climbing. In addition to fabulous views and miles of sandy tracks, we discovered a large underground cave with a freshwater pool, which made for a very refreshing pit stop on a hot day!
Makemo is a little further afield in the central Tuamotus and is an overnight sail from most islands, but well worth the effort. Its relaxed pace of life, deserted anchorages and excellent provisioning – including fuel – meant we stayed a lot longer here than anywhere else!
Heading to the eastern tip of the atoll, we discovered several anchorages with a jaw-dropping backdrop of deserted motus, swaying palm trees and incredible pink sandbanks that would appear at low tide.
At the village, there’s limited anchoring but boats can med-moor to a long quay without charge. The village is one of the most charming and pretty we’ve seen in the Tuamotus and the people so friendly and welcoming. We also found a small pearl farm with a treasure trove of affordable black pearls.
This breathtakingly-beautiful deserted atoll offers sandy beaches, pristine marine life and the best drift snorkelling in the Tuamotus.
With no light pollution, at night we would lie outside on the trampolines, mesmerised by the planets and constellations, as we watched shooting stars dash across the skyline like turbo-charged angels.
Jenevora Swann and her husband Fergus Dunipace have been liveaboards on their catamaran Two Drifters since 2014. They sailed around Europe before crossing the Atlantic to explore the Caribbean, USA, South and Central America. They are now sailing in the South Pacific. www.Facebook.com/TwoDriftersTravel / www.twodrifterstravel.com
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