This entry was made by Matt
Left the pointy volcanic islands of the Marquesas and sailed for 4 days south to the flat Tuomotus atolls.
Just as we were leaving Ua Pou island we saw a cloud of various sea birds directly in front of us. The birds are feeding on a large school of fish and most likely tuna doing the same thing. We excitedly double check our trolling gear in anticipation of a fresh fish dinner.
We saw what I call a Centaur boat in the middle of the birds. This is a 20 ft fishing boat where the helmsman stands and steers from the front of the boat. Normally boats of this size are controlled from the middle or rear of the boat where there is less boat movement on the person steering. As the boat accelerates the front of the boat rises lifting the helmsman high up into a commanding view looking like the human torso connected to body of powerful horse.
As we approached the boat we could see a local man by himself pulling in 4 ft tuna by hand. Tuna of this size are powerful swimmers. This guy had strong arms and hands to grab the fishing line and quickly pulling the line in making a pile of fishing line in his boat. Within about a minute he had the tuna along side of the boat. While holding the fishing line in one hand he leaned over the edge of the boat and clubbed the tuna with his other hand then pulled the large fish into the boat. His small boat momentarily disappearing behind large swells. We couldn’t help notice the danger he faced if a wave threw him overboard so far from shore.
We watched him repeat this process of trolling his boat through the birds, pulling in tuna then repeating over and over. Our trolling lines could easily foul so we kept a comfortable distance as we passed. We all waved in admiration to his ability to catch fish. He returned a wave that looked like a proud Mussolini salute. Pointing his arm at us then slowly moving it the direction he was heading all while his boat rose and fell in the large waves.
Tuna would fly into the air chasing the schooling fish. A whale or dolphin has a backbone capable of bending in all directions. The streamlined tuna appear stiff and awkward falling back into the water. Whales and dolphins are in full control when in the air. Diving effortlessly back in. The large tuna looked so strange out in the air.
Max caught a very large fish that put up a great fight but the line was cut on our boats keel. This was a tragic loss. Not of the fish but the prized Alien lure. Called so because the bright green rubbery lure looks like a cross between a life from outer space and a squid. This individual lure had caught many fish. Sorry to see this prized soldier fall we realize that we are now fishing in an area full of fish. A flashy pancake spatula with a hook will work as well.
The winds really picked up during our crossing making rough seas. A good part of the voyage we had to keep all the hatches, ports closed to prevent seawater from flooding inside. It gets so hot and stuffy inside the boat we will risk opening the hatch whenever we can to get fresh air.
Each of us at some point of the passage had a bucket of seawater dumped on us in middle of the night waking us from our sleep. We split the night into 4 watch shifts to keep a eye on changing wind and course, anything on deck getting loose, closing and opening hatches depending on sea roughness.
Losing someone overboard at night would be fatal so we spent our shifts below deck occasionally picking our head up through the galley hatch to look around.
We have the computer Hal (the name of the human killing computer in Kubrick’s film 2001) that steers the boat automatically. Hal uses too much electric power to push the boats rudder in high waves. Our batteries are always low so we don’t use Hal. Instead we use Bill as our helmsman.
Bill is a mechanical device that automatically steers the boat based on wind direction. Works pretty good and consumes no electrical power. Point the boat in the direction you want to go, trim the sails for speed (disired comfort level), engage Bill to keep the boat pointed based on wind direction.
Bill keeps the wind in the sails. Small changes in course don’t matter when you are sailing hundreds of miles as long as you are generally going in the right direction. Wind direction doesn’t usually change much. Even though we are in 16000 to 13000 ft depth of water we occasionally check our heading and make adjustments to Bill’s ropes and pulleys.
The sailboat is in constant need for electric power to run the fresh water maker, refrigerator, radar, radio, navigation electronics, lights for night and most importantly the motor that pulls up the anchor ( it’s hell to pull up by hand). We have solar panels but they have their limitations.
Before I left Tucson for Tahiti I fabricated a tow propeller that gets towed behind the sailboat by a rope. The propeller turns the rope which turns a car alternator mounted on the rear of the boat. The alternator makes a couple of amps that charge the sailboats batteries. The tow propeller pulls on the boat about 15 pounds. That’s insignificant compared to the boats 26000 lbs fully loaded weight.
I didn’t have any practical easy way to test the tow propeller in Tucson. Was very happy to see that it work reasonably well. I made two propellers incase one gets eaten by a big fish. The downside of the propeller is that it can tangle or cut our trolling fishing lines. On this Tuomotus passage the size of the waves made controlling the boat to haul in a fish difficult so the tow propeller was used most of the way.
The sea was rough. The first day out we skipped all meals out of lack of hunger. The next day we forced ourselves to eat 1 small meal of oatmeal. By the 3rd day Tony could not eat. I was bit better but Jim and Max were fine. The 4th day we all started eating again.
The deep ocean here is a bright glowing navy blue. The water is so clear that the sun penetrates deeply making streaks of light beams disappearing into the depths. An opalescent appearance. Like looking into a blue pearl.
As the water depth decreases the water becomes bright turquoise. The atolls rise abruptly thousands of feet off the ocean floor. We cheer as we finally sonar the ocean bottom after days of reading infinite depth. Large brown booby birds start to appearing in greater number followed by white terns, black frigates.
The tall pointy volcanic Marquesas islands are easily seen from great distance. In the daytime its obvious which way to point the boat to get to the next island. Here though the Tuomotus atolls are flat. Maybe 10 ft highest point above sea level. The tops of the coconut palms are not visible from the boat until you are right on them. Finding the atoll is difficult without charts. Until recent times mariners avoided these islands. The English called them the Dangerous Islands because at one moment it appears you are safely far out at sea then all of the sudden a coral reef appears directly in front of you.
Tougher is identifying which passage that is deep enough for the boat to sail through to get to calmer waters inside the center lagoon. The atolls form a ring of miniature islands made from coral surrounding a central shallow lagoon.
The tide and wind is either filling or emptying the lagoon causing high currents in the passages. These currents can fight the prevailing ocean swells causing large breaking waves. The strong current can easily overpower a boat and send it into a coral reef.
Rarioa atoll has only 1 passage that we can fit through. It is 30 feet deep and we need 16. The passage is narrow and many coral reefs. Its remoteness made it difficult to find a current time schedule. Last year Jim’s wife Laura patently spent many hours in Tucson downloading google satellite images of most of the Tuomotus atolls so we would know where the reefs are. These images along with electronic charts are essential for us to navigate safely to the calm inside lagoon. Even so many sailboats bypass the Tuomotus as too risky to visit.
We motored to the shallow passage entrance and watched the waves for 1 hour then wearily proceeded in as the current started to slow and reverse. Once other boaters waiting inside the lagoon saw we made it into the lagoon ok they quickly exited the lagoon before the powerful current returned.
(Matt Rademacher works at University of Arizona and has signed on for a 1 month deployment aboard Akela)