September 15, 2008
Last Letter From Home


September 01, 2008
Saying Goodbye


August 15, 2008
The Circle Closes At Arue


August 01, 2008
Last Days In Rangi


July 15, 2008
The Road To Rangiroa


July 01, 2008
A Social Whirl


June 15, 2008
The Land of Men


June 01, 2008
Sweet Days in Hiva Oa


May 15, 2008
Homing In


May 01, 2008
A Perfect Day At Sea


April 15, 2008
Beating Across The Pacific


April 01, 2008
The Worrier Transits The Canal


March 15, 2008
The Boys And The Hunt


March 01, 2008
Sweet Landfall In Panama


February 15, 2008
Gloom in Cartagena


February 01, 2008
Connections With That Long-Ago Girl


January 15, 2008
Where the Boys Are


January 01, 2008
Life On The Hard


December 15, 2007
Last Letter From Vermont


December 01, 2007
The Final Countdown


November 15, 2007
Welcome Aboard Shangri-La


November 01, 2007
More Bad Dreams Than Good


October 15, 2007
When Our Systems Overwhelm Us


October 01, 2007
Shaking Off The Remoras


September 15, 2007
The Deal Is Done


September 01, 2007
The Search For Shangri-La


August 15, 2007
The Birth Of A Dream


August 15, 2007
Tania And Sons


August 15, 2007
About Tania


August 15, 2007
About the Family


August 15, 2007
About Shangri-La


August 15, 2007
Voyage Itinerary


August 15, 2007
Appearances


August 15, 2007
Tanias Books


August 15, 2007
Chartering With Tania


July 15, 2008
The Road To Rangiroa

By Tania Aebi

I haven’t paid such close attention to the weather since fall of 2001. In July of that year, the boys and I had our last big adventure before this one, an 8,000-mile cross-country camping trip. In August, I led a 10-day charter in the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia, the second and last time I was here before now.

Sam and Tania, anchored in a tropical paradise

We all know what happened on September 11, and consequently, on October 7, my birthday, and the day the US invaded Afghanistan. This was the same day that our well ran dry. It had been the driest summer in Vermont history. At the Laundromat, which became one of the more popular hangouts in Bradford, I heard about wells running dry for the first time in 200 years. Every drill company in the state was booked through the end of the year, and until mid-November, the boys and I hauled buckets of water up from the pond that remained miraculously full for flushing, doing dishes, feeding the meat chickens.

Until mid-November, I checked in with the NOAA weather website several times a day, looking for clouds, following the track of every cold, warm, and occluded front, until the rains finally came. And indeed, a wintry event finally arrived, along with sleet and snow, on the same day we had to slip and slide through the building muck to round up the chickens for their date with the butcher, a job that was made a thousand times more disgusting because of the precipitation. That was in the days before we started butchering ourselves and could’ve postponed the job for fairer weather, but I didn’t complain. I swore I’d never complain about rain again, no matter how long and hard it poured on any chicken drive or barbecue I ever hosted. And, I haven’t.

Nicholas, Sam, and Tania

But, lately, as I maintain a regular vigil on the South Pacific weather, those days have been coming back to me. There’s nothing like a dry well or sailing waters that are considered to be in “cyclone season” to turn one into an amateur meteorologist. On the crossing between Panama and the Marquesas, I read and reread every single word my cruising guides and passage planners to the South Pacific had to say about cyclones, cyclogenesis, typical tracks, probabilities, past years with major activity, years with none, El Nino, and La Nina, until I felt like I was turning into a gambling La Loca

Planning the next two passages from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus, then the Tuamotus to Tahiti, I consulted the Nautical Almanac and went even more anxiously loca when I saw that on February 7, just when we needed to be underway for Tahiti, there’d be a total annular eclipse, no moon, and the sun’s declination would be directly overhead. None of this necessarily meant anything, empirically, no more than the belief that if you buy one lottery ticket every day, you’re bound to win big. Maybe, maybe not.

Tania rolls out a pie crust..

Personally, I’ve always been a little wary of too many celestial convergences happening at once. It seems as if all that pushing and pulling and blocking up there ought to have some kind of effect down here. The sentient side of me worried my stomach into knots until the intellectual side convinced it that chances were equally good for the effects to be favorable or unfavorable. Both sides also knew this didn’t mean, come February 7, I wouldn’t be tying up the SSB airwaves with requests for weather forecasts and GRIB files. My sententious side knows that forewarned is forearmed.

As soon as we reached the Marquesas, my days were planned around getting to the internet to monitor local patterns, and using the SSB and Sailmail to download weather and finding the best reports issuing from French Polynesia, Hawaii, and New Zealand. I’ve never been so well informed, and took a morbid interest in Cyclone Funa’s whereabouts as she stormed across waters way far away, west of Fiji. I plotted the depressions that formed south of French Polynesia, and the troughs that developed north of them. And, I kept my fingers crossed.


Before heading out, I climbed the mast to check the rigging, and snap a few pictures

When we left Ua Pou in the Northern Marquesas for Rangiroa in the Tuamotus, 567 miles to the southwest and further into the cyclone zone, the coast was clear. We had good easterly and northeasterly winds forecasted, one small trough, and a full moon to guide us through the next four nights. It was a beautiful passage.

Wait, let me repeat that. It was a beautiful passage. A perfect passage, one of my nicest ever. After one ship on the first night, we were alone at sea again, sailing downwind at an average trip speed of 6 knots. On the third morning, we hit the trough and 30-knot winds that got the pulse racing a little faster, the wind generator humming, and me using up all the spare electricity going on Sailmail to download some more weather reports. A depression south of Tahiti had dissipated, our trough was following it, and everything still looked good.

In fact, the scariest thing about this whole passage was making landfall on an atoll, where the highest point of land is only as high as the tallest coconut palm or radio tower, for the first time in my life. The last time I passed through the area, I’d been navigating with just the sextant and had completely avoided the Tuamotus and any other avoidable low-lying area that had too many reefs. I preferred aiming for places with mountains that could be spotted from 30-40 miles away, not just six. I also always had engine problems and preferred landfalls with easily accessible harbors over the narrow, current-plagued passes one must navigate to access lagoons.


Sam often can be found at Shangri La’s stern when we’re sailing. He’s checking on his fishing lines.

Rangiroa, our destination, is the world’s second largest atoll at 40 miles long and 17 miles wide, at its widest, an inland sea with a circumference of 100 miles encircled and contained by 240 islets, or motus, separated by channels called hoas. The Pacific Ocean pours into this huge swimming pool, it has only two deep-water exits for overflow, and the guides emphasize the importance of timing the hairy passes properly with the tides. The GPS has made navigation a cinch and using the sextant, playful entertainment, so my reading turned to timing for navigating Tiputa pass, figuring out when the water would be slack from a tide table program a friend in the Marquesas had passed along, and from the moon’s meridian passage that another book said was the way to go.

Upon our arrival, the tide table said low tide would occur at 1146, and the Almanac said the meridian passage was at 1304, so at 0930, with the airport tower and tallest coconut palms in sight, I turned Shangri La’s bow into the wind—the jib was already doused— and we waited for 1230. Nicholas kept working on his Latin assignment. Sam, who was finished with the whole school year, luxuriated abed with his book. And I cleaned. Three screeching squalls passed overhead, intermittently drenching us in downpours I will never complain about, obscuring the view of land and once, sending a rainbow to arc over us from horizon to horizon.

Jumping from the spreaders into the turquoise waters of the lagoon thrills the boys for hours

I’m still not sure if we timed it right, and I’ll have to pick some local knowledge brains to time our departure well and see if the turbulent rips, currents and waves will be any better on the way out than they were on the way in. It sure takes an act of faith, a belief in one’s own navigational prowess, and a complete and utter trust in the charts, cruising guides and engine to aim for and run downwind into what looks like a Class 5 river rapid between waves thundering and crashing on reefs to either side. As we surfed through the opening, keeping in rigid line with the bearing structures, I wondered what an outgoing tide would be like, and made myself look as if I’d done this a thousand times before for the boys. Pas de probleme.

No, really, pas de probleme. It wasn’t. Suddenly, the waters flattened and stretched ahead of us as we turned to starboard, steering between a sandbank and the main motu. Turquoise and indigo blues clearly distinguished themselves from the browns and oranges of coral formations to avoid until we rounded the point of land and aimed for an anchorage nestled in its placid bight. Several local motorboats and one abandoned-looking ketch were there, otherwise, we had the “most popular anchorage in the Tuamotus” to ourselves.


Tania puts aside the weather worries and goes snorkeling

I’m not an artist, don’t know all the names and places on the color wheel, but Nicholas let the anchor drop in something we’ll call azure, the color clear water will assume at about 30 feet of depth, somewhere between turquoise and indigo where 200 feet of chain is an elegant sufficiency that would allow me to sleep peacefully through any squall. My first Tuamotan landfall. Let me tell you, it’s a pretty nice thing to behold. I’ve already mentioned the colors of the waters, but how about the white coral beaches fringed with the vibrant greens of coconut palms and hibiscus? Not too shabby at all.

The boys are ecstatic. It’s the kind of place they dreamed about, what they’ve been asking for since the San Blas, and as soon as the anchor was set, they started growing fins and gills. Anchored alone in this perfect lagoon, because we’re still sailing in what is considered by all the authoritative cruising guide voices as the wrong season, we can feel as privileged as the people staying in bungalows perched on stilts over the waters just to the west of us. But, on Shangri La, we’re home, while they’re in a hotel.


The boys grew fins and gills, and spent all their time in the water.

Yes, they’re in a hotel, and we’re home, which is why I still haven’t completely let down my guard. I don’t want to lose my home, and forecasting isn’t easy here, what with the closest internet connection being 12 kilometers up island. But, between the snorkeling and diving, I’m doing what I have to do to keep an eye on the weather via buoyweather.com, hurricanezone.net, Sailmail, the barometer, and the skies. I’m happy to report that it still looks good. And my fingers are still crossed, hoping it’ll stay that way. I’ll keep you posted.


Sam and Nicholas