French Polynesia is a vast area, with five major island groups: The Marquesas, Tuamotus, Gambier, Austral, and Society Islands. We are traveling west with the winds after crossing from Panama and landing in the magical Marquesas islands. After a few weeks or months in The Marquesas, the next island group is usually the Tuamotus. Cruising the Tuamotus is like nothing we’ve experienced, and a great reason to get the long stay visa. We can’t believe we almost raced through all of these islands, a necessity with the standard French Polynesian three month visa.
Introduction to The Tuamotus
Motu in Tahitian means a small islet of coral reef, an atoll. The Tuamotus is a chain of 70+ of these small islets, many sparsely inhabited.
To sail from The Marquesas to anywhere in The Tuamotus takes 3-4 days, depending on departure and arrival points, and, of course, the wind. Once you’re in the chain, you can do short day or overnight hops to get from one motu to the next.
The archipelagos’ total population is only about 15,000 people. That’s right, across almost 80 islands. The main industries include pearl farming, copra cultivation (coconut oil), and a small amount of tourism in a few places.
The landscape of the Tuamotus is so different from many tropical places, because they are basically coral reefs oh so slightly above sea level. We could be an hour away from one before seeing it. They’re not like the lush, hilly Marquesas or Society Islands, visible from miles away and abundant with fresh water and fruit. These low islands were the bane of early explorers like Captain Cook, continuously crashing on the reefs in the uncharted waters. Fortunately, charts are better now, but cruising in The Tuamotus calls for extreme vigilance.
On our first visit in June we stopped at Raioroa, Makemo, Tahania, and Fakarava before leaving for Tahiti for boat work. We returned in October to Fakarava before visiting Tuao and Makemo again, went to Marquesas and then back to Fakarava and a few days in Rangiroa for our last pass at the Tuamotus. In 3 months visiting only a handful of the 77 atolls, we experienced beauty, adventure, and lots of challenges.
The Best Things about Cruising The Tuamotus
One look at the water in these lagoons is enough to want to stay, with average visibility of 60 feet. We had some nice calm days in the lagoons, paddling the clear waters enjoying the marine life. After the deep dark cold anchorages of The Marquesas (which got warmer in summer), the shallow turquoise waters of The Tuamotus are a dream.
In good weather, The Tuamotus are ideal for watersports. We paddled, swam, snorkeled, foiled, and dove. Kiteboarders love the flat waters, consistent wind, and sand bars in Hirifa, Fakarava. Other cruisers surfed some of the passes. There’s a lot to do in the water when the weather is good in The Tuamotus.
The marine life
The protected lagoons in The Tuamotus are full of marine animals. Fakarava is world renowned for scuba, and we had a blast diving there. We also loved scuba diving in Rangiroa, where we had our first underwater encounter with a dolphin!
Besides constant encounters with sharks and a dolphin visit in Rangiroa, we saw whales in the waters too! After a few days of isolation in an uninhabited anchorage in Makemo, we watched a whale breach multiple times near our boat, passing close by on its way south. It was a memorable and incredible experience.
In another anchorage in Makemo we were visited by a friendly manta ray. The calm water in the lagoons is full of marine life and the clarity makes it easy to spot them.
Unless there’s a weird wind or wave event, the lagoons are protected and calm. We had nights in the deep anchorages of The Marquesas that were worse than being on passage. The Tuamotus has the opposite effect: the calm waters lulled us into complacency, and excellent sleep. Sleeping on a boat in The Tuamotus is usually very comfortable. If you stay too long, you get spoiled and it’s hard to remember you’re not on land!
Danes Love Cruising The Tuamotus too!
The amazing diving in Fakarava brings all sorts of tourists. There are some nice hotels and a lot of casual pensions scattered near the pass and Rotoava where many stay. Others, from Denmark, opt to crowd into a few yachts. Apparently it’s a big trend now for young Danes to take a few months off and join a sailboat in French Polynesia. They pay by the night and extra for dive lessons and more.
We first noticed this trend when we were docked next to a Danish monohull no bigger than ours with at least 12 people on board sailing to The Galapagos. We thought they were all friends but apparently that isn’t essential if you’re young and Danish.
The most Danish boats we’ve ever seen were in Fakarava. And almost all of them were bursting with people. Most of the boats have so many people they can’t fit in their dinghy. Or they have two dinghies to accommodate. They have generators on board and are constantly either diving or filling dive tanks. We were surprised when we saw a Danish flagged vessel in another motu with only a family on 4 on board!
The Challenges of Cruising the Tuamotus
I had never heard of bommies before The Tuamotus but I’m sure I’ll see them again, but maybe not in such profusion. While navigating the lagoons, going from anchorage to anchorage, we have to dodge these coral heads jutting above, or worse, just below, the water. Those are bommies. Some atolls are better than others for these navigational hazards. We had the most white knuckle experiences in Makemo, where both of us were on the lookout the entire time. Bommies to the left and right of all different sizes and locations. The best way to survive the experience is with two – or more – people on lookout, Open CPN software using google satellite view, all in direct sunlight.
This aspect of cruising The Tuamotus is not for the fainthearted. We met people who had bottomed out their catamaran on coral in Fakarava, and they weren’t the only ones this season.
To get into the safe protected lagoons in the atolls requires entering the pass, which is deep cut through the reef where it’s safe for boats to move. Some motus have no pass at all, they are entirely surrounded by reef, so boaters can’t and don’t visit. Others have multiple passes, like Fakarava and Makemo, and many have only one.
One of the considerations on our boat when visiting a motu is “timing the pass” to enter or exit at the optimal time, slack tide, or when the tide is going the same way you are. The current in the pass can be more than 10 knots and Sava can’t compete.
In our early days we tried to enter a pass when it wasn’t optimal, the boat got kicked around a bit, and we gave up and waited a few hours. Then we breezed in with the waves and current pulling us along the way we wanted to go.
The pass will likely be full of boats: scuba divers and fishing boats. There’s enough room, but still something to keep in mind. I recommend going in the daytime when you can see the standing waves and any bommies once inside the lagoon.
Not much to do on land
The water is incredible and all the marine life that goes with it, but you can get a little stir crazy if the weather isn’t good or you don’t like water activities. The barren rocky flat landscape doesn’t make for good hiking. The towns are tiny and entertainment options are limited.
Since The Tuamotus are composed of coral reef, anchoring is a challenge. You want to anchor in sand so the anchor holds and we don’t damage the reef. Sailors have found a way to do it called floating the chain. Basically, we attach floats (we used fenders) along the anchor chain so the chain doesn’t lie on the seabed but floats in the water above the coral. Most of the time this works and we don’t have to put on scuba gear to pull up our anchor. We don’t complain about the diving, but don’t want to destroy living coral. There’s so little of it as is, which is why coral restoration is so important.
One of our biggest challenges in The Tuamotus is sourcing fresh produce. On the atolls, people subsist on canned foods, fish, and bread, and fresh produce is a luxury.
You learn how and where to get fresh fruits and vegetables after a short time in the Tuamotus. Arrive in towns before the plane flies in, or in Fakarava, on Wednesday morning when the supply ship comes from Tahiti. And then be ready for battle, because everybody and their grandmother is waiting at the gas mart for the veggies to come out. One of our friends compares the action to Thunderdome, and we have seen some agile boat kids grab the last banana before the Danish cruisers can get it.
We always ended up finding veggies. People with farms are starting to grow lettuce and more in Fakarava, and you can also order direct from Tahiti. It’s time consuming and frustrating, but we got a lot of green beans that way. And there’s always fruit juice to keep the scurvy away.
When I look back at our time in The Tuamotus I will remember paddling, swimming, and diving in that seemingly endless expanse of turquoise water. And that alone makes cruising the Tuamotus worthwhile.