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Tuamotu Archipelago

By webmaster last modified Aug 19, 2002 12:50 AM

Published: 2002-08-19 00:50:47
Countries: French Polynesia

With the advent of modern navigation aids like GPS, better charts and good cruising guides, it is now much easier to explore the Tuamotus and much safer if you use all those aids correctly! What a contrast after the Marquesas! The water is so clear and the protected, non-rolly, anchorages so numerous that it makes for much nicer cruising conditions than in the Marquesas! The inhabitants are open, friendly and generous (especially if you go to the less visited atolls, mostly the ones in the Eastern part, not spoiled yet with cruisers and tourists). If you like watersports, this is your kind of place! Excellent snorkeling and scuba in all the passes and along outside barriers, easy spearfishing, plenty of coconuts for water and meat.

Sailing through the passes We used the tidetable method (easier than using moonrise and moonset) and it worked very well for us! We used an easy software for world tidetables and cross checked it with a copy of the French yearly tidetable (we got a copy of 3 pages needed for 6 months, ask any dive center or SMA base). We found that in most atolls, you get big cascarets (boiling cauldrons of water where current and opposing waves meet) sometimes up to 2 miles outside of the pass. We saw some French boats passing through the washing machine zone and heard breakages of all kind! During the incoming tide (between low water slack and high water slack) you will only find some small cascarets on the inside. These are much smaller as the incoming current is not as strong as the outgoing current! Sometimes, the swell and big winds may in fact push so much water in the lagoon that you may keep getting outgoing current for a few hours instead of the incoming one you should get. The last 3 hours before the high tide slack seems to have ingoing current most often. We recommend trying to time at least the entrance into the atoll. If you do try a pass when there are large overfalls, you may be able to avoid or greatly reduce the crashing by going on the very edges of the rough water near the sides of the pass, but be careful as eddies can cause unexpected effects on steering.

Also, we have to hand it to the French, most passes and lagoons are so well marked with lighted range beacons, lateral and cardinal buoyage markers (often lighted). It's pretty amazing to find deserted atolls so well marked!

Anchorages Often you can find a suitable place to be protected from the winds, which come mostly from the East. The key to the Tuamotus is being able to hide behind motus or reefs, sometimes this requires planning if, say, you're in a lagoon that's 10 or more miles across. If you want to avoid getting into a nasty or dangerous situation, you need to get weather charts, or long-range forecasts to warn you of approaching changes that aren't mentioned on the radio stations or daily forecasts that just tell you today's weather. We took a beating that just resulted in a very uncomfortable, frustrating passage that took 3 days instead of the 2 nights and one day, we planned. But that woke us up, and we made sure to get the NADI Fleetcode bulletins available thru the Ham Radio Winlink station in Australia (ZL1MA). We avoided being in the wrong place many times after that, and made our Tuamotu visit much more enjoyable.

In the atolls the bottom is often sand with many coral heads that can sometimes stick up more than 15 feet from the bottom. Make sure you don't swing on any of those that may be too shallow for your draft! Often, because of turning winds, your chain may get stuck in between those coral patches. A problem we had at the beginning was that following a period of little or no wind, our chain would go down vertically and snag on some coral ... when the wind picks up again, you end up having a very steep, short chain and a lot of coral grinding your rode. To help in that situation, we made up a technique that works well: on the last 100 ft of rode we attach 3 of those big plastic buoys, that you can find beachcombing or buy from local fishermen, one every 25 ft. The buoyancy of each (about 60 lbs.) lifts our chain off the bottom enough to clear the tall coral heads so we still have a good angle of pull and elasticity.

Snorkeling and scuba in the passes Always go at incoming tide as the water will be clearer and in case of problems you will end up inside the lagoon in calmer waters and not at sea! If you go at slack water (before incoming tide) you will have little or no current at all. You will enjoy all the coral and fish life in the pass. We enjoy drift-snorkeling hanging on to the sides of our dinghy, ready to drop the anchor if we want to stay in one place. If you watch the locals, you will see that even with a good current running in the pass, you can find calmer areas or even counter currents on the edges of the passes in the shallow water.

Ciguatera poisoning Before eating any fish you spear; check with local fishermen about ciguatera! Every atoll, every pass and corner of a same atoll has different species that may be infected. It seems to change also from one year to another so no fixed rules here. Learn by the trial and errors of the locals. If they eat fish every day, they know the safe ones! We were told about 4 different tests some locals apply (rigor mortis, copper coin, flies and rubbing a piece on your lips) but by experience we know they are not infallible! Some test kits are on the market (Hawaii Research, California manufacturer) but those are quite expensive (2 to 4 $ a test) and not easy to find locally. If you get a number of the following symptoms, you may suspect ciguatera: severe fatigue or heaviness in the muscles, itchy skin, nausea, or indigestion, hyper sensibility to cold temperature (seems to burn) ... Each atoll village has a nurse who can help you with medication. (Only symptomatic; there is no cure) We were given Celestene, a glucocorticoid, and Vitamins B12 and B6 to help a mild case. In very severe cases, Hawaii Research recommends intravenous courses of Mannitol.


We sailed by the West Point (14°48'S 138°50'W) The French sailing directions indicated a possibility to anchor on a reef plateau near the village, but we didn't see any way to anchor around the dock or anywhere!


Since we had little info about the pass, I heard traffic (in French) on VHF 06 and a local came out to pilot us in! It's not that difficult if you get to the entry (17°50'S-140°51'W) and stay in the center of the channel. With good light you see well the right turn you have to make at the end of the pass! A huge mooring can be picked up in front of the village or with shallow draft you may get in the natural harbor. Unless you can get into the little harbor, the mooring can get VERY rolly as you're on a lee shore w/ miles of fetch. From the village, follow the edge of the shallows, and behind two sand spits south of the village, you will find a very well protected and beautiful anchorage in front of a series of motus (little islands) (15-20 ft, good sand, with isolated coral heads). The outer edges of the sand spits and fringing reefs are staked: easy to see in good light. Tautu & Hinano (the postmistress) welcomed us. Nice to visit an out-of-the-way atoll! (No stores, no bakery.)

Good spearfishing in the passes and on the isolated coral heads in the lagoon with no ciguaterra reported far away from the village! (We ate some delicious groupers). Locals says you have to go to the star shaped reef in the middle of the lagoon (17°48'S-140°46'W) before you can claim to have arrived in Amanu! We did go with Tautu and family for a day picnic and snorkeling and had a great time! Nice to have a local that knows the location of the isolated reefs even if they are pretty easy to spot!

Fresh fruits we brought from the Marquesas were so appreciated here!


We entered the pass during ingoing tide with light wind. Coordinates entrance of pass: 18°03'90S 141°00'31W.

There is a protected anchorage just inside the lagoon E of the pass where you can wait for better light before proceeding inside the lagoon or wait for the right time to go out of the pass (18°04'31S-140°59'75W). It's good sand with isolated coral heads and there is a very shallow dinghy-landing pier to go ashore and visit the point and old shooting range. There is also an anchorage on the W side of the pass. To go to Otepa, follow markers and sketches in cruising guides, with good light it is very easy, you could even sail, as isolated reefs are easily seen and far apart. You can anchor N of Otepa town around 18d06'S-140d54'W. Good bakery, general supplies can be found.

Don't miss a deeper incursion in the lagoon by visiting some pearl farm motus along the E side all the way to Nake, the abandoned village. Up to Tony's farm (18°15'58S-140°50'07W) it is very easy; further on you have to really pay attention for isolated coral patches and just submerged reefs and mostly underwater lines holding the pearl shells (sometimes marked by buoys, sometimes not!). If you are set up for scuba, you may help with some pearl farm jobs in exchange for some black pearls!

We stayed a few days off Nake, in a super smooth anchorage (18°24'S140°40'W) as it has little possible fetch except with a W wind. A few people live here from copra, fishing, and pearl farming and on Sundays, you can make the fête (party) with them. They were glad to show us around and to share their meal! We were perhaps the 10th boat to ever have stopped here and we enjoyed the unspoiled contact!

A new scuba center is being set up by Laurent, Padi and Cmas instructor, with great dives offered in the pass. You can anchor conveniently in front of it, as it is located just at the North edge of the village.

We visited Hao just weeks before the Military Base, which was the support base for the nuclear testing on the Mururoa atoll, was permanently shut down, along with many support facilities, such as the electric and water making plant and hospital. These are left for the territory to deal with. The life on the atoll may have drastically changed since then, since many a livelihood depended on the Military Base.


Both passes are easy with good light. The pass at the village is marked for major traffic, and never seemed dangerous during the time we were there. The West pass has a very nice protected anchorage in a little bay near a copra shed on the other side of the pass. We waited out some nasty weather there. The anchorage in front of the village is uncomfortable to dangerous in heavy SE winds and the bottom is mostly hard with many coral heads, so you either don't hold or you wrap the anchor all around the coral.

Nice town with groceries and bread available, a hydroponics farm, infirmary, very comfortable internet access at the post office. See Gerard the black pearl sculptor (unique art) and shell and ivory (whale teeth) sculptor for unique souvenirs. Easy lagoon to navigate with few and well visible coral heads (in good light naturally) Always watch for pearl farm buoys even far from shore. Some farms west of the village may chase you away. Nice motus to anchor off about 8 nm SE of village: deserted, clear water, well protected from E-SE winds. Good drift diving and spearfishing (groupers) in passes. Ciguatera-free at this time.


Very easy middle pass (entrance at 16°51'S-144°41'W), wide and deep. Of course, we timed our entrance. We saw 2 boats make a terrifying exit in the middle of the outgoing current. Good anchorage found just behind the right side of pass (10-20 ft sand with isolated coral heads, protected from N to SE).

Good snorkeling and spearfishing in all 3 passes and vicinity. We went in the NE corner of the atoll to do some beachcombing, lobster hunting on the reefs at night (not as easy as some say!) and coconut crab (kave) hunting, also at night (see natives for the method!). Except for a few seasonal fishermen, the lagoon is uninhabited. We were told that all the fish were safe to eat except a certain type of grouper, which fits more the description of a red dog-toothed snapper.


Easy, well marked pass. The described outside anchorage can be uncomfortable with S. swell or with occasional W.wind and you anchor on a hard coral shelf. Inside anchorage is not protected from East sector winds and is about ½ mile away from the village. The lagoon is reported difficult to navigate because of the numerous pearl farm stations!

Pass makes an interesting drift-snorkel on an ingoing current especially past the town pier and the fish traps they call *Parc à poissons*. There is a dinghy pass thru the reef that brings you close to the village in protected water. If you come from the anchorage inside, come back as if you are exiting the pass and just before you reach the town pier, you'll see the sticks marking the channel on your left.


The South pass is actually easy to negotiate and also well marked once you identify the entrance, and the right branch just after the Hotel bungalows and fish park has actually plenty of depth also. The old village at the South pass (very scenic and well maintained) is now inhabited by 2 families and a small resort. Local families also have guest cottages. This area is much more enjoyable than the North, spend some time here. Like in all passes, you can drift snorkel or scuba dive. The anchorage N. of the resort is choppy in NE wind.

The lagoon has lots of pearl farms lines but a channel is marked with green and red lighted navigational markers: sail in a straight line from one to the next one you see ahead and you should pass clear of any danger (reefs and buoys and lines). We would still do it in good sunlight and make a stop in the delightful anchorages midway along the curve in the motu line before it goes to the E.

Rotoava village in the N. has a dock, post office, limited bread, groceries and the usual town things. Also a dive center is located in the new hotel abt 3 nm S. of town. The North pass is well marked and straightforward and very, very wide.


Pass Otugi is straightforward and has a range beacon way in the center that you can align to make your entrance. Good comfortable anchorage off the motu South of the pass (as the charts and guides show). Good anchorage in the NE corner of the atoll. This atoll is intermittently inhabited giving a nice feeling of isolation. In spite of the lack of human evidence, the sharks here were the most attuned to spearfishing than at any of the other atolls, where they seemed barely interested.

Anse Amyot: 4 moorings for yachts installed by the nice family (Taupiri & Rose, their kids Stellio and the others). They invite you to go with them in their activities (spearfishing, lobstering, kave hunting and more). Spend the evening in their bar/restaurant playing bocciball, chatting and eating local dishes. Don't forget to look at their cruiser's guest log! No timing necessary to enter or exit this cul de sac pass!


SW pass is tricky but not bad if you time it right and have good light! The two passes of Apataki are unusual in that they seem to be rough with overfalls on the ingoing tide. The SW pass was worse on the ingoing current than the outgoing!

The little harbor mentioned in Charlie's Charts exists but has a narrow entrance so we didn't chance it with our 25ft beam and we are not sure about depth! Also you have to turn at a 90-deg. angle from the current in the pass so it may be tricky maneuvering! Otherwise, there is no safe anchorage near the village in prevailing winds.

Calm anchorage in 25ft. of coral sand close to the pearl farms in the SE corner of the lagoon. We anchored in front of Alfred's pearl farm (15°33'S-146 24814'W). The whole family welcomes you so warmly! They truly enjoy meeting travelers and you will be able to learn plenty about all their activities (black pearls, copra, fishing, vanilla cultivation, egg farming and more). We truly had a great time with this welcoming family! Fill their guest log!

Easy lagoon to sail across pass to pass or even diagonally with few reefs easily avoided with good light! As always, keep an eye out for pearl farm buoys even in the middle of the lagoon. The NW anchorage about 1.5 nm from the NW pass is calm in NE winds but rolly in E winds and dangerous in S winds (because of the long fetch) as an US sailboat found out this season. You can dive on this 34-ft wreck in 40 ft of water in the indicated anchorage. Look for a coral formation on shore that looks like an anvil or ask local fishermen. And watch the weather so as to not suffer the same fate!