Tuamotus

On the third day at sea, we arrived to an atoll in the north of the Tuamotus. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, if you don’t already know, an atoll  (from wikipedia) is a ring-shaped coral reef that encircles a lagoon partially or completely. There may be coral islands or cays on the rim. The coral of the atoll often sits atop the rim of an extinct seamount or volcano which has eroded or subsided partially beneath the water. The Tuamotu archipelago that belongs to French Polynesia consists of 75 atolls. It was a rainy and windy morning and the only entrance to the atoll looked even more scary than what we had imagined.

Luckily, maybe by some divine intervention, at the same time of our arrival, another sailboat was there, a catamaran, navigating the pass without any problems as to letting us know, that everything was going to be ok. That gave us enough encouragement to try it ourselves, and without waiting any longer, we motored through the narrow pass, and made it through safely.

Inside the atoll to the left of the pass, we saw two other boats at anchor and decided to find our own spot behind them. We set the anchor safely and sat in the cockpit to take in this amazingly different place.

In front of us we could see 4 or 5 small houses set between palm trees and sand. To the left and right, we could see a narrow rim of sand, reef and palm trees. Behind us and all around us, all there was was water.  I felt so remote.

We went downstairs, had long showers, cooked a wonderful hot breakfast and fell asleep. It was 24th of December. We had finally arrived to a destination that we had always dreamt about. It felt surreal. The wind was still howling but we were protected in our anchorage.

For the next 3 and a half months we stayed in this part of the world. Every day we got more and more used to our surroundings. The weather would sometimes change and become calm and so glassy we could see our reflections on the water’s surface. We quickly learned to coexist  with our neighbours the millions of fish that visited us to get some little scraps of our food , the noisy birds that were on a constant feeding frenzy and the many sharks that came to do the rounds every day.

We met our human neighbours too, we didn’t have too many of those but thankfully the ones we had, were really nice, and being in such an isolated place, made our newly made bonds even stronger. We shared some good surf sessions with them, had bonfires on the beach, went spear fishing and  sailed together to other parts of the atoll.

We spent most of our time in this one atoll. We didn’t feel the need to move from it because we found everything we liked here: good waves, beautiful beaches and amazing ocean life. After almost two months here, we decided to explore some of the other atolls.

We sailed south through the atoll chain and arrived to one of the most visited, a Unesco World Heritage site, known for the biggest concentration of sharks in its south pass. Fakarava didn’t dissapoint. It was quite impressive and we spent almost two weeks sailing the lagoon, visiting different spots along the way and getting our minds blown away by watching all those sharks cruising around on the south pass.

We also visited the uninhabited atoll of Tahanea, where we saw a completely different behaviour by the sharks. Maybe there were a bit too curious, but we felt a bit intimidated by the closeness they wanted to have with us. Many times we decided to jump back to the dinghy because we felt that they were getting to close to our liking.

And in the atoll of Toau, we experienced our first real interaction with locals. We met Regis and Katie, two of the friendliest people we’ve ever met, welcoming us with freshly caught fish and cold coconut water.

Every day they would give us something that they had around ; some kind of local fruit called kava, bread fruit, coconut bread. They invited us one day to eat coconut crab, Mick even went with Regis to catch the crab. So we tried to reciprocate their generosity and invited them over to our boat for lunch and shared with them some magazines, clothes and fishing gear. When we said good bye they sent us off with gifts of black pearls and big smiles that we will never forget.

These months in the atolls were the icing on the cake.  We improved our free diving, wave riding, coconut harvesting, cooking and baking skills, bonfire building, we became more crafty, better at untangling the anchor from coral heads and navigating through the mazes of coral gardens across the atolls….Being in such a testing environment, where you’re so exposed to nature, so far away from everywhere, gave us so many new lessons and we felt our lives so enriched afterwards. It was an unbelievable time, that we will never forget.

Reunited back with Ondular

After a long time of dreaming and waiting for the moment to arrive, it was here and we were all packed and ready to go back to Ondular. We thought this time wouldn’t be that bad going back (weight wise), considering that we’d already lived on the boat for almost two years; what other things could we possibly bring back with us?… I was so wrong! Mick’s luggage was packed full of boat parts, fishing things etc, it was so heavy and we were stopped so many times on the way to Tahiti; they must have thought we were real weirdos. Who travels with a coffee grinder, a pressure cooker and 100 or more fishing hooks and lures? We were also carrying with us, 4 new boards and a stand up paddle. Quite a bit of weight.

Anyway, after almost two days of travel and 500 us dollars in overweight luggage down, we made it to Tahiti with all our belongings, that’s always a plus! We spent a couple of days in Tahiti, we rented a car and went around the island, checked the supermarkets for future food stocking and went to see a local insurer for our boat. We even went to check the port from where our cargo boat would be leaving the next day to make sure there wouldn’t be any problems. We had booked this cargo boat called Hawaiki Nui months in advanced as we’d found out this was one of the only options to get to Raiatea from Tahiti to avoid the expensive airfares. It would take longer than a plane as it would travel  overnight but we were saving lots of money by doing that.

When we arrived to their local offices, there was a sign on the door that said something about jeudi (Thursday in French) but reading it quickly we thought it said that the office was closed today and will open again on Thursday. We left the premises very satisfied with ourselves, thinking that French wasn’t that hard after all and continued touring the island.

Next day came and we went early to the dock to leave all our luggage and have enough time to return the rental car. When we arrived, we saw that the office was still closed and read the message again, this time a bit more carefully and realised that it said that the normal trip to Raiatea was cancelled this Thursday and would resume back next week. We screamed, kicked and almost cried, felt pretty silly …what to do now? We went back to the hotel and asked a nice girl at the reception to help us calling all the other cargo boats or shuttles around. It seemed that there wasn’t any other boat going to Raiatea and that the Hawaiaki nui was our only option.

But then we found out we may have another shot with a different cargo boat called the Tapooro, that apparently didn’t take any passengers but maybe we could send our luggage with them and even see if they could fit us in somehow. We went to their office and found out that this trip they were travelling with diesel and gasoline so definitely no passengers but we were able to send our heavy luggage with them for 50 dollars then rushed to the only airline and managed to buy two tickets to Raiatea that afternoon. It wasn’t cheap but it got us there. We arrived around 6.30 pm and because we were supposed to arrive with the boat the following morning we had no accommodation booked for that night. We decided to rent a car and drove to the Carinage where Ondular was stored. We got a glimpse of the outside of Ondular and spent our first night in Raiatea sleeping in our tiny rental “the panda” outside the marina.

The next morning came and with light we were ready to open up Ondular and have a look inside of her to see in what condition it was in. We were happily surprised to see that all our hard work before leaving her, really paid off. There was a bit of mould especially in our front cabin but nothing like it could’ve been. So for the next few days we cleaned and cleaned and got our boat ready to be liveable again.

We spent the next two weeks in the boatyard, cleaning first and then fixing a few things that we thought were important to do before getting her back in the water , like the boom , setting all the sails and of course doing the antifoul.

Finally the day came when we were ready to do the splash in. Ondular was carefully picked up and put in the slip. We tried the engine but it didn’t start. Tried a few times and nothing happened and figured it might be the starter battery. Because they needed the space for another boat, they moved us and tied us to a stationary old ferry nearby and full of disappointment we left the starter battery charging all night to see what happened.  In hindsight it was the best possible outcome to be tied to the Ferry that night because we had time to test everything else that couldn’t be tested when out of the water, like the anchor , the toilet, etc and even though we weren’t quite ready yet, it felt so good to be back floating in the water.

To avoid making this post too long I’ll just name all the new problems we’ve encountered after storing our boat for over a year and being put back in the water.

The starter battery wasn’t really the problem, but it was actually fuel related and once the fuel got treated we were good to go.

The fridge wasn’t cooling, and the water maker wasn’t working properly: Mick thought of possible solutions and tried the water maker without the little pump that was failing, and it now seems to work fine. With the fridge, once we realised that the evaporator plate had several leaks, we had two options: order a new one from Papeete or try to fix the one we have. Which one do you think Mick chose?

The evaporator plate has an aluminium tube which was the one that had suffered from electrolysis and was full of leaks. Mick being Mick, decided to replace that tube with a copper one and joined it to the plate using fyber glass and later on fusing it properly. We are still in the process of fixing our fridge but I can honestly say that we can survive just fine without one. Our lives would definitely be a bit fancier with one and the fridge saga isn’t over yet but we’ve made sure to not only be stuck here trying to fix everything without enjoying ourselves.

Of course, there have been some frustrating times trying to sort all these different boat problems when we were so eager to go out and explore.  Being out here in a tiny French speaking island adds to the difficulties, especially if our level of French is saying good-morning and good-afternoon not even at the right time of the day sometimes. But anyway google-translate is our new best friend and we are using duolingo to try and get better at it as we go along. There’s still hope for us and we are definitely learning to be more self-reliant, to persevere and to work on our patience big time.

I guess this is life on a boat. There’s a lot of hard work and it can be really testing at times but that’s what makes the good times even better. I have to say, the Pacific is showing to be so much more challenging than any other place we’ve cruised before. Now that I think back on our time in the Caribbean or Panama and Ecuador how easy it was, everyone spoke English or Spanish, there were all kinds of shops and access to parts and things all around, the cruising books made everything so easy; you knew where to anchor, how to anchor, what to expect, most navigation was straight forward and apart from strong winds there wasn’t much to worry about.

Here is a completely different story; shallow waters filled with coral heads so no more relying only on the charts but keeping a close look on the depth sounder and using our eyes to spot corals and show the way.  A weather, that as our new friend Tom described it, is nothing short of schizophrenic , one minute is calm, the next is stormy then rainy, then sunny, windy, calm.. And in general it feels like a more explorational kind of cruising; it’s not all given to us in extensively researched cruising guides but it’s more dependent on us, where we decide to anchor and how to navigate certain areas. So yes, definitely more challenging.

So far I can tell you I’ve been so very happy to be back on Ondular, the closeness to nature, the sunsets, the rocking while sleeping, the underwater world, the quietness and other days I’ve missed land so much, the safety, the stability, the known.  But what is life without a bit of challenges? They say difficult and unease times are what makes us stronger. Welcome to a new season on Ondular. We hope you enjoy our tales and join us on another go at living free in the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The road ahead

Six days till our departure date. We’ve done our practice pack, checked for excess weight, separated the unnecessary things and put them into a give- away pile.

 I was dreading this day, because the last time I found it hard to know what to pack and what not to, and even harder to let go of clothes and things I didn’t have the space to take with me. Luckily, this time was much easier and I managed to quickly decide what to take and what to leave behind. My bag got packed with little drama and with the correct weight.

Mick on the other hand was having a few more problems. These months on land, have allowed him to use the Alibaba site a bit too much and his bag is full of extra parts for the boat, the boards, the photography, the coconut oil making (don’t ask!) and of course the perfect coffee making (this time we’ll be taking a coffee grinder with us). Needless to say, it ended up being a bit heavier than mine.

We finished work a week ago and spent last week visiting friends and spending time with family. Yesterday and today we’ve been cleaning the apartment where we’ve lived for the last few months and later today we’ll be going to visit Mick’s mum and dad for a few days.

Our last weekend in Australia will be spent saying goodbye, re packing our bags and board bags and on Monday we’ll be flying to Sydney, from Sydney to Auckland, from Auckland to Papeete. The whole journey is going to take us more than 20 hours.

We’ll spend two days in Papeete and then take the ferry to Raiatea where Ondular has been for the last 15 months. We’ve booked an air bnb for the first two nights there so that we have a nice place to return to after spending, we assume, those two days cleaning her and getting rid of the unavoidable mould.

Once we make her liveable again, we’ll move in but we’ll still be at the boatyard doing the antifouling, getting the sails back up and setting her all up to be ready to be launched into the water again.  We hope this process won’t take more than 2 weeks, but hey! Who knows how long it’ll take.

Once in the water is another story; life will be more comfortable and we’ll also try to anchor near a motu (little island) with a nice passage (waves) nearby so that we can enjoy some surfing, snorkelling and all the things we like doing, while working on the boat jobs.

And that’s as far as we’ve got, after that is in the realm of the unknown. We’ll figure it all out once we’re there. We’ve got a one-year visa for French Polynesia so we’re in no rush. We haven’t seen much of the islands yet so this is a whole new part of the world for us to explore and we’re happy to not have a plan.

 We’re returning to Ondular with a different vision. It’s no longer a holiday; it’s our life and we’d like this life style to last for a while. So, we’re planning to be smarter with our money (yes, we’ll try to be even tighter than before and be even more self-sufficient) and we’d like to avoid any schedules or timelines. This would mean to be guided merely by the weather and by how we feel in the places we encounter.

We know how lucky we are to be doing this, to have the freedom and ability to leave everything behind, follow our passion and listen to our souls.  This is the beginning of our second chapter of being free in the sea and we’d like to share it with you so we can inspire, entertain, encourage, motivate or simply keep you posted.

 

Transiting the Panama Canal in September

We had read different versions on how to do the Panama Canal transit and decided to do it all ourselves and not use an agent. A few days before heading to Colon, we went to Noonsite (which is a website for sailors) and found a form , that we filled out and sent back to the Panama Canal people to let them know when we were going to be arriving, our boat info and our planned transit date. After sending the form through the internet, we called to confirm that they had received the form and they said yes. We did it in Spanish, but they also spoke English.

We arrived into Colon the early morning of the 3 September and we anchored in the area called The Flats. We tried to called the admeasures office to get our measuring date sorted, but didn’t get any answer. We tried and tried, and when we didn’t get an answer, we called the Pacific side (there are the two numbers to ring) and they did answer and said they would come the next morning around 10 am. The next morning we decided to ring again to confirm that they were coming, and they let us know that they weren’t going to be able to come that day and to please ring them the following day to check if they could.

We were really upset because we were eager to get the boat measured so that things could speed up but there was nothing we could do. Next thing was to move the boat to the Club Natutico to be able to have access to shore because the problem in The Flats is that there isn’t a dinghy landing nearby.

Once we were at the Club Nautico we approached our neighbouring boat and said hi and asked them what the deal was to go to shore. They explained to us where to go and we went to the Club and had a look around Colon. Sadly, Colon is a horrible city, full of poverty and it’s not safe. Nothing happened to us, but every time we would go into town, someone would tell us “be careful!” so it made us feel paranoid and scared all the time. The yacht club is a pretty safe place to leave the dinghy, but every time you go into town they make you pay $6 dollars.

Luckily, by Saturday morning, we rung again and they said to go to the flats, that they would measure our boat that day. We were waiting for maybe 3 to 4 hours, but they did show up and it was a very simple and well organized procedure. The guy that came to our boat, filled all the paperwork for us, measured our boat and made sure that everything on board works well. Then he told us that on Monday we could pay the fee and then ring to know the day that we would be transiting the canal. Because we are a small vessel our fee was $1875 but we got back $875 after crossing the canal. That amount works as a bond, so if everything goes well while you transit it, they will give you that money back at the end.

Monday morning we went to the bank and paid and then at 6pm we rung again and they told us that the next available slot was Friday or Saturday. We decided to go on the Saturday. To transit the canal, first you need to have 4 people to handle the lines on the boat and also you need to have tyres to protect you from either the walls or other boats and big proper lines. We rented the lines and tyres from Tito( you can find his number in Noonsite). Tito is very professional and brings the tyres and lines where you are and also picks them up again when you have crossed to the other side.

The line handlers we found through a website called www.panamalinehandlers.com . You need to write your information and the date you are thinking of transiting the canal and then volunteers will contact you if they are interested or available. We got really lucky and got in touch with Russel and Diane, a lovely couple, he’s Australian and she’s kiwi but they now live in Panama city and have done the canal transit around 5 times. They brought a friend with them and they were such great help. All we had to pay, was their bus fare and feed them while they were with us. It made such a big difference to have such nice and knowledgeable people with us, as it made everything run smoother.

Those days that we had to wait in Colon for our transit were spent shopping and restocking the boat with food for the next year.

Saturday came and our volunteer line handlers arrived before midday. We fed them some lunch and moved the boat to the flats where we had to wait until our advisor would come onboard. Luckily he didn’t’ take too long and we were moving towards the first lock around 3pm.

Mick was on the helm, Diane and I, were in the two back corners and Russel and Dale were up front. Our advisor was a very gentle man called Victor who even brought us some magazines about the canal as a present. All vessels transiting the canal have to have either a pilot on board for the larger vessels or an advisor for the small ones like us.

The first lock was an upward lock which we completed in the position of centre chamber. This meant that our boat was on its own in the centre of the lock held in position by the four mooring lines. In this position all 4 line handlers have to be active the whole time, and when the water starts rising, we had to pull and make sure that all sides were levelled. We worked together with 4 canal workers that handle the lines on their side. We had to repeat this process three different times as there are 3 different levels going up.

We really enjoyed this first part and being centre chamber as we felt that we had more control over the whole situation. Once you pass this first lock, you go into the Gatun Lake and spend the night there. We made it to the lake almost before dark and our advisor got picked up. We started hearing some noises and although we couldn’t really see them, we figured out they were manatees swimming around our boat. We had dinner and a few drinks and went to bed early as the next morning we had to be up around 6am.

We were up around 6:30 am but the new advisor didn’t show up until 9 am. Once he arrived, we started motoring to the Miraflores locks which were 25 miles away. It was beautiful going through the lake and the excitement was building up as we didn’t know how we were going to cross the canal in this next part.

This time, we had to be rafted up against a tourist ferry boat so it was a bit more stressful because we had to throw our lines to them every time and then disengage again to motor to the next part. We had to do this at least 4 times, but this part was easier than the first set of locks as these are downward locks. Once we were rafted up to the ferry boat all we had left to do was sit and watch how the water level dropped and then the stressful part began again once we had to disengage and deal with water turbulence to drive to the next set of locks. It was funny being rafted against them though because we had like 50 tourists looking down to our boat, some of them, asking us question and others just simply staring at us.

And then the last lock opened and we could head out to the Pacific Ocean. It was an amazing feeling to be finally on the other side and it was such a surreal experience. We were also so relieved and happy that nothing bad happened and everything went relatively smooth. So we all had a celebratory drink and cheered to have made it through the canal!

We left our line handlers in the Balboa Yacht Club and headed out to La Playita, a famous anchorage in a little island called Flamenco outside Panama City. This island is connected to the city by a long causeway. We set our anchor and watched the sunset and were thrilled to be starting a new chapter in our sailing lives.