Airborne Over Rangiroa

The pass leading through the coral was alive with churning water.  From a mile out at sea it looked calm enough, but now that we were beginning our baptism into its hidden currents we saw a different story.  Just ahead of Pamela, the four-foot swell was rapidly turning into eight-foot rollers.  Our timing had been wrong.  Instead of a slack tide with light current we were going in on an ebb tide.  The outflowing waters from Rangiroa’s massive lagoon were meeting the easterly ocean swells in an angry conflict of wills.

Could Pamela make it through the opposing current?  Or would those eddies push her hard onto the fringing reef?  Would she slide sideways down one of those steep waves and get pooped, her cockpit flooded with two hundred gallons of seawater?

What had gone wrong with our tide plan?  I wasn’t confident in our iPad app that showed the tides of Ahe and Manihi, for those atolls were nearly a hundred miles from Rangiroa.  The app didn’t show the tides for Rangiroa, which seemed very odd given that Rangiroa is the most developed of the atolls of the northern Tuamotus.  I was forced to extrapolate by adjusting the times further west.  As an insurance policy, I had emailed the SailMail operator on Manihi and asked him for a tide timetable for Rangiroa.  His reply indicated a time several hours from my extrapolated time, leaving me further perplexed.

So here we were, at the right place at the wrong time.  I braced the wheel and spread my feet wide apart and into the corners where the cockpit benches meet the deck.

Pam stood behind me.  As Pamela began to surf high over the first of the eight-footers I said as calmly as I could muster, “Whatever happens in the next minute, please don’t scream.

From the top of the cresting wave the trough below looked impossibly deep, at least ten feet straight down.  Pamela paused on the crest of the wave then let the roller pass beneath her keel, seeming to slide backward for a moment.  I glanced quickly behind to see the next steep roller begin to lift her fine canoe stern.  She bucked like a slow-motion hobby horse as again we were carried airborne over Rangiroa, and then settled back down as the second great roller passed under her and into the lagoon.  I opened up her throttle to full speed and the knotmeter recorded our progress as 0.9 knots.  My mouth was dry and my palms were dripping with sweat.  We were certainly taking our time getting into the lagoon, but at least we were not being carried sideways by the swirling eddies.

Three minutes later the breaking seas were behind us.   The pass was still churning away, but the confused eddies looked benign compared to what we had just bashed through.  I glanced behind and imagined trying to motor headlong into those breakers, deciding to never attempt such a thing.

A few minutes later we were safely anchored in the placid turquoise water of Rangiroa’s lagoon.  It was definitely time for a cold Hinano in a Butch’s Fish Camp cozy.  My dry throat began to moisten, my palms were drying out, and my voice returned from a Vienna Boys’ Choir alto back to its normal tenor.

After pumping up the inflatable dinghy and lowering down the outboard from its perch under the stern davits, we headed straight for the Kia Ora Hotel with its inviting dock, open-air lobby full of local information about diving the pass and renting bicycles, and not least, its upscale bar overlooking the flat water stretching for fifteen miles across the lagoon, with lovely Pamela in the foreground.  And wifi!  In a broad conspiracy to hide the ugly truths about long-distance sailing, I uploaded a photo to Facebook showing a happy couple enjoying chilly island drinks in a palm-fringed lagoon.  Who wants to hear the truth about a six-night passage from the Marquesas, when rain squalls force you to don your foul weather gear, while late-night bodily functions force you to frantically come out of jacket and bibs.  Alas, and not coming out quickly enough, and spending an hour cleaning up the resulting mess in the cubby-hole-of-a-bathroom while the ship tosses you about in the fetid darkness.

Meanwhile, the gardenia-scented men’s room of the Kia Ora Hotel bar conspired to lure me back to a life on land.  You could sell Pamela and with the proceeds travel the whole  world luxuriating in men’s rooms such as this!  With foo-foo islands drinks as well!

But would I?  No, without a sailboat I wouldn’t even be aware of Rangiroa in the Tuamotus in French Polynesia in the middle of the Pacific.  This atoll of tiny islands surrounding a lagoon of calm water in the midst of the rolling ocean, one of hundreds of motus that make up the Tuamotu archipeligo, a thousand miles long, in between the volcanic Marquesas and Tahiti.  These islands made entirely from coral and coconuts, once called “the Dangerous Isles” because of their razor-sharp fringing coral reefs that ships couldn’t see until it was too late.

We rented a pair of rusty single-speed bicycles with fat, sagging tires and enjoyed the fresh breeze against our sunburned skin as we raced along Rangiroa’s only road, standing high up on the pedals to get further airborne.  I spied a brown coconut and stopped to give it a shake to see if there was coconut water inside, then tossed it into the basket under my bicycle’s handle bars.

A lugubrious Frenchman seated in the shade of a broken-down cafe agreed to serve us a drink but declined to serve us lunch when Pam announced in broken French that we wanted only one serving of fish, not two.  It wasn’t worth it to heat up the grill for only one serving the man replied.  How far this expat had come from his homeland to spend his final days not serving lunch in Rangiroa.  A while later we cycled past the Gendarmerie but found it closed for the afternoon.  A black island dog, perhaps the most long-suffering of all beasts, panted in the shade of a coconut tree.

The wind that had been at our backs on the swift ride up the island was now in our face.  It conspired to dry off the sweat produced by the noon-day sun, but our laboring against the wind on under-inflated, fat old tires, generated more sweat than the trade wind could dry.  On we pedaled over the coarse coral road made blinding white by the sun, and it seemed that nothing could break the peace of this sleepy afternoon, until —

An explosion overhead caused me to jump off my seat.  A truck barreling down the island road behind me?  A maniacal island dog waking from a dream to find invaders in his coconut grove?  It was a large, twin-engined aircraft making a landing on the melancholy strip called Rangiroa airport.  I looked up to see faces pressed against the glass windows, airborne over Rangiroa, watching a shirtless man with odd spectacles pedaling an old bicycle with a coconut in the basket.  Some of these faces belonged to islanders returning from a visit to Papeete to see a relative.  Others belonged to tourists heading to the Kia Ora Hotel, having saved up their precious vacation time for a few days in the Tuamotus.  A few belonged to young French-speaking honeymooners, weary after a long flight from Paris but eagerly anticipating a plunge into the warm lagoon.

Soon we joined them in adventure, “drift snorkeling through the pass.”  We arranged for a local outfitter to come out to Pamela and take us on a trip back into the swift currents of the pass.  The concept is simple; you jump off a boat where the Pacific enters the pass, then drift along the canyon-like coral walls of the pass as the inflowing current carries you into the lagoon.  You glide through the water like Superman, discovering the bigger fish in the depths below, including a number of large sharks.  As you soar into the lagoon the depths become shallow, and soon you’re drifting over a coral shelf called “The Aquarium”.  The fish see you coming.  Your host tosses a few bits of canned mackerel into the lagoon and immediately you’re in a maelstrom of pink bodies and yellow fins thrashing wildly about to see who can get more than his fair share of mackerel.  You wonder what happened to the blunt-snouted sharks you drifted past back in the pass — what, they don’t like mackerel, or pink fish, or tourists with swim fins?

We met a group of women from Southern California, a few years older than us, spending a short chick-trip vacation in Rangiroa.  They were very curious about our journey on a sailboat all the way from California, asking the usual questions:  What do you do at night?  Do you have a stove on board?  Aren’t you afraid of storms and pirates?  It turned out that Pam knew someone they also knew in Southern California, and soon Pam and the girls became fast friends.  They invited us back to their over-the-water bungalow at the Kia Ora Hotel, and we shared a bottle of wine while Pam enjoyed their fine, hot shower.  The room had a small landing with an outdoor shower, which I found enjoyable, taking care not to become too civilized too quickly.  After all, we still had 3,000 miles before reaching New Zealand.

We were soon airborne over Rangiroa once again, this time on a speeding motorboat flying high over the waves of the inner lagoon on our way to Les Isles Recifes, a collection of little motus on the far side of the lagoon.  As beautiful as The Aquarium had been the day before, the coral-studded shallows of these motus were even more so as the afternoon sun dappled around the myriad forms of underwater life.  In many places the water was so shallow I had to breath in great lungfuls of air to float my body over the coral bommies, sucking in my gut so far that my stomach rubbed against my backbone.

On the fine coral-sand beach we split a few coconuts for an invigorating snack, then explored a curiously high wall of jagged coral mixed with basalt that formed a protective fence to keep out the Pacific westerlies that beat hard against these islands in winter.  We followed the wall of coral past several pools of bathtub-warm, clear tropical water to another motu where our host had a hot lunch waiting for us.  Warm coconut-filled bread!  Grilled mahi mahi and chicken, fresh from an outdoor oven heated by burning coconut hulls!  Poisson cru with fresh, raw tuna and coconut cream!  We ate more than is befitting a man who spends the day lazing about in the sun, pretending that our efforts floating past the bommies qualified as exercise, then lay back to watch the timeless tropical afternoon.  The women enjoyed a weaving lesson, learning to make baskets from interleaved palm fronds, while the men pretended to be interested by photographing the enterprise.  When the baskets were finished we fed a troupe of black-tipped sharks by the shore, then waded back out to the speedboat, once again airborne of Rangiroa as we launched off the little waves made by the fetch of the afternoon breeze.  One more trip to The Aquarium to feed the fish there, and then out again into the pass, this time to see the dolphins that come to jump in the rollicking waves at sunset, leaping in high somersaults, airborne of Rangiroa.

How can time slow down, yet speed up at the same time?  It was soon time to say goodbye to our new friends at the Kia Ora Hotel.  The clock was ticking on our 90-day visa in French Polynesia, and there was still much to see in Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the rest of the Society Islands about 250 miles to the southwest.  We pulled up our anchor from the soft, sandy bottom and followed the island up to another pass, this one more gentle than the pass we’d entered a few days earlier.  We timed it just right — no adverse current, no tide rips, no drama of breaking waves — no “airborne over Rangiroa”.

Except for the dolphins.  They are always there to greet you when you sail into a new Polynesian island, and there again to saw farewell to you as you sail away.  As we left Rangiroa behind, a large pod raced to meet us, leaping with wild joy through a series of acrobatic dives.  The red sun blended into the far horizon and a crescent of moon rose in the east to light up the seas for our journey to Tahiti.