Alone in Fakarava

One month ago today, I hitched a ride with Alex and Dave Green to the airport. The town of Rotoava only has one flight a day and the airport is outside of the town of 500 people, so a ride was easy to catch; our driver was one of the half dozen airport employees.

An hour later, I dinghied back to Saltbreaker by myself, climbed below, took a seat and a deep breath, and began the long adjustment to being truly alone for the first time in 9 months. This atoll, Fakarava, was the last stop for Dave Green who returned to the states to go back to school, and Alex was on the same flight, heading back to the bay area for Dosh’s (read his post on his time as crew for the Baja Ha-Ha aboard Saltbreaker here) wedding. I was a bit apprehensive about spending the next two weeks on the same tiny patch of land as I waited for Alex to come back. Little did I know that I’d spend the next month here, and still wouldn’t want to leave.

I learned very quickly that some things on a boat are easier with one person, and some things are much much more difficult. Keeping things clean for instance, is incredibly easy when there aren’t 3 dudes and all their earthly possessions packed into a 32 foot boat, hoping it’s somebody else’s turn to do the dishes according to our respective imaginary schedules.

Anchoring on the other hand, is a process much more easily accomplished with two or more people.

With one person, things get tricky. In the South Pacific in particular, anchoring is a pain even with a full crew. Coral heads, known by cruisers as “bombies” litter the seafloor, causing the anchor chain to get wrapped in a Gordian knot every time the wind changes direction. Pulling the anchor up usually only takes a few minutes, but the next day, alone, it took an hour and a half.

Starting in the cockpit, I would throw the engine in gear until I had some momentum going. After tossing it back in neutral, I would sprint to the bow of the boat and start tugging up the 150 feet of chain by hand (our windlass, a winch used to haul up the anchor with minimal effort, had broken back in Mexico).

This spectacle in itself would probably be enough to attract the attention of anyone nearby, but the fact that I was doing it wearing a mask and snorkel was so entertaining that one Tuamotian passing by in at outrigger decided to pause his morning exercise routine for a while to marvel at mine. The mask and snorkel were on because as soon as the bow was directly over the offending coral head, I would have to dive off the bow pulpit, pull myself down 40 feet and manually unwrap the chain. Of course any new slack I had created would get wrapped again quickly, so I’d have to book it back to the boat, climb up the swim ladder, sprint back to the bow, and pull up the 10 feet of chain this massive feat of exertion had gained me. Then start over.

When there was no more chain left, I dove down and pulled the anchor itself out from under a massive rock and immediately screamed, “Blubbly blubbling blub” into a stream of bubbles as the 15 knots of wind blowing 40 feet above me began to drag the boat and anchor away with nobody on board. A breathless rise to the surface and a quick swimming sprint and I was back in control of Saltbreaker, motoring towards my next anchorage. When the adrenaline in my veins had finally run it’s course, I remembered to take my mask off.

The next anchorage was in the middle of nowhere on Fakarava, which is itself in the middle of nowhere. I spent a few days there, taking advantage of this complete aloneness by using the head with the door open, singing along to songs I would have been embarassed to play in front of others, and eating terrible yet delicious food whenever I felt like it. Sometimes all at the same time.

With that out of my system, I rejoined society. Society here meaning 2-3 of other sailboats and the guests and employees at a dive shop at the southern pass of Fakarava, an absolutely world class diving location.

Like all coral atolls, Fakarava was created by an ancient volcano aeons ago. Around this volcano grew massive amounts of coral, whose calcium skeletons created a self sustaining reef. While the volcano itself was no longer able to support itself and sank back into the ocean, the coral remained, forming a massive ring of coral rubble 15 miles wide and 30 miles long. It’s interesting to note that this patch of “land” is really just a pile of solidified calcium extracted from seawater, so it may be better defined as a patch of solid ocean in the middle of the liquid ocean.

When the tide rises (luckily it doesn’t rise more than 12 inches or so here, since the highest point of “land” is only a dozen feet above sea level) fresh sparkling clear seawater floods through two deep passes between islets and rushes in at up to 5 knots, creating the most spectacular natural roller coaster ride in the world. Taking the dinghy just outside the pass, you can hop in the water with 100+ft visibility and float over brilliantly colored coral formations, patches of needlefish floating on the surface, massive bumbling Napoleon Wrasses, schools of unicornfish, and most impressively of all, hundreds and hundreds of sharks.

Yes, sharks. It took several rides through the pass to feel comfortable with them, but after a while, I couldn’t get enough. Aside from one 10-12 ft. dusky shark which gave me the creeps, most of these sharks are 3-4 feet, with the occasional 5-6 footer. Blacktips, whitetips, silvertips, and big schools of gray sharks were always around, and absolutely stunning to swim around with. All of them are completely harmless, though I wouldn’t want to be in the water when the dive shop threw out their fish scraps before lunch.

I spent the next week and a half there, riding the coaster at least once a day. I made a lot of friends on boats who were only able to stop at this beautiful spot for a couple of days, employees at the dive shop, and with a local man Manihi who had built a wood burning oven and would occasionally invite all the cruisers over for pizza topped with fish he caught in the lagoon.

As my alone time came to an end it was time to sail back up to the north end of the island to pick up Alex, our Dad (who flew in to visit for a couple weeks), and journalist Sarah Rose (long story) from the airport. As it often does however, the weather dashed all plans. With a big storm system to the south, the best place to hide out was in a protected area surrounded by reefs near the south pass, 30 miles from the airport. Luckily, I was able to arrange a powerboat ride straight to Saltbreaker for Alex, Dad, and Sarah through connections I made while drinking beer at the dive shop in the south.

The weather system passed through just in time for Dad and Sarah to experience a rocky first night on Saltbreaker. With 2 of them slightly seasick, and all 3 recovering from jetlag, I was left awake by myself by 8 p.m., thankful for the 2 weeks of solitude, yet glad to have company again, especially to help with things like anchoring.

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4 Responses to Alone in Fakarava

  1. Mom (Sara) says:

    What an INCREDIBLE story, Nick! Thanks to your wonderful writing, I can visualize so keenly what your time alone must have been like – the swimming in the roller coaster pass, the near ‘escape’ of Saltbreaker and the unforgettable time that you had alone. I’ll be reading this one over and over. What a thrill!

  2. Judi says:

    All I can say after reading this is….book, book, book, book, book….when is it coming out?

  3. Erin says:

    Was wondering what you were up to while you were on your own! Happy to hear you were enjoying yourself for the most part…and really working on your underwater breathing, it sounds like. Amazing tales, as always!

  4. jennifer matuschek says:

    Dude, I’m so in utter awe of you! Raising the anchor alone, without a windlass, chain in a knot, sharks in the water, an audience, and 15 knot winds? forget spider man, forget bat man, you’re my superhero!!! What an adventure. I’m sure you gained great perspective by going it a lone for a while!

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