Off the Beaten Tack
We tend to sail a little bit off the beaten tack.
Instead of leaving from Mexico to sail to French Polynesia, we continued south to explore Central America for a season. When we got to Panama, instead of sticking close to the Perlas islands, we wandered up the rivers of the Darien wilderness area. Instead of the more common route from Panama to the Galapagos and on to the Marquesas, we set our sights on the Gambiers. Before leaving the mainland, we applied for long stay visas in French Polynesia so that we wouldn’t have to rush off to New Zealand after a short three-month visit.
When we sailed up to the Tuamotus from the Gambiers, we crossed tacks with dozens of boats heading on a more “traditional” route. For two weeks, we joined 40 other boats in the southeast corner of Fakarava while a ma’aramu (accelerated trade winds) roared by. It was so much fun. We reconnected with boats we hadn’t seen since Mexico and made lots of new friends. Our days were spent wandering the beach and watching the impressive kite boarders take advantage of the strong winds and flat water inside the lagoon. Every evening brought some kind of social engagement, which often involved pulling on waterproof pants and jackets at the end of the night, piling into the dinghy and getting completely soaked in the wind chop as we weaved our way home through the boats in the anchorage.
From Fakarava, almost all of our friends headed southwest, to Tahiti and the other Society islands. But for us, there were many more Tuamotu atolls to explore. We continued west, once again carving our own way.
There are some wonderful benefits to separating from the pack and exploring the lesser visited places. In Tohau, just one island over from Fakarava, we found what would become our favorite snorkeling spot in all of the Tuamotus. It is an untouched shallow reef just inside the lagoon that is not marked on the chart nor discussed in the guidebook. We happened upon it because we arrived to the pass early and had to wait for the tide to turn before we could exit the lagoon. Why not go for a swim while we waited! We hooked up to a nearby mooring ball and swam over to the biggest healthiest and most diverse coral I have ever seen. It was a bustling underwater city full of thousands of fish and resident reef tip sharks. We saw eels and starfish and a Grouper the size of a Labrador.
Our next stop was a small town on the atoll of Apataki. Many boats visit Apataki towards the end of the season because there is a boat yard at the far side of the lagoon with a small haul out facility. We didn’t need to go to the boatyard, so instead we stopped in the one-road town by the pass and tied up to the public wharf. Apparently, the locals see the sailboats go by, but they rarely stop on their way to the boatyard. With our prime location, literally parked at the end of the single road, we were the big attraction in town. Every evening people biked or walked down to say hello, practice their English or just look at the boat. We were invited to a local birthday party, got a tricycle-based tour of the town from Niko and his 4 words of English, and traded fishing gear and hats for black pearls.
Getting to know these isolated places without the distraction or effect of large numbers of cruising boats nearby is such a treat. But wandering off the beaten track has its downsides too. Not many locals in the Tuamotus speak any English and with our (VERY) limited French communication skills, it can become quite a challenge to procure even basic information, like when the supply ship comes in next or whether we can drink the water. Luckily, the locals are incredibly friendly and generous. They are eager to help despite the language barrier and we can eventually get our point across with hand gestures and big smiles and a little bit of google translate.
The hardest part is that we miss our cruising friends. While we were exploring the unique petrified coral formations on the southern side of Rangiroa (arguably one of the most beautiful places I have been), with not a single other boat in sight, some of our closest cruising friends were all together in Bora Bora, 250 miles away from us. I wanted to transplant them all to our anchorage so we could explore that little slice of paradise together!
We could have sailed on to Bora Bora with our friends, but then we would have missed some amazing snorkeling, a birthday feast, laughing with Niko, wandering through the last stand of old growth forest in the Tuamotus and climbing over petrified coral. We also would have been 250 miles further from our next destination – the Marquesas, and the 650-mile upwind bash we had to do was already plenty long for me. Life is all about choices, and there will always be unchosen options left on the table. We try not to dwell on what could have been, but instead focus on what is next and – most importantly – what is right here and right now.