Monday, June 13, 2011

Pay to Play

This morning we enjoyed breakfast in our relaxed and calm anchorage before pulling the hook to move to a position near the Ahe atoll lagoon entrance. The cruising guides say that just inside the passage there are a few places to drop the hook to allow folks to engage in some drift snorkeling. Now from a planning purpose it seemed ideal. We'd be able to spend a few hours near the pass and then head out with the slack mid-afternoon on our way to Rangiroa. This was a classic case of the best laid plans.

I have no idea what idiot mood folks were in naming that area near the pass an anchorage. If by anchorage, the authors meant "really deep, really steep, and littered in all directions with chunks of rock and coral, then by all means. It's perfect. As far as I was concerned, the entire thing smacked of completely dodgy bordering on seriously stupid. On the other hand, there was not a lot of wind, the water quality was brilliant, and of course you can always dive on your anchor, right?

So we dropped the hook and set ourselves down for a few hours. The kids and DrC headed out with Loose Pointer to drift snorkel. Now this pastime is like none other. You pull on all your gear and scramble into the dinghy. Then you drive the dinghy out the atoll pass into the open ocean. Here you leave a dinghy captain in the boats and everyone else flops into the water. Then you fly! Floating at between 3 to 5 knots with visibility easily 50 feet, you are swept through a tropical aquarium. Everywhere you look are brilliant, glowing fish, variegated corals, and the stunning blues of the water itself. We saw morays and white tipped reef sharks, large clams, and octopus. Every fish with a named role in Finding Nemo made a visit as well as all their cousins in every possible color. Eventually, you get swept into the lagoon where you meet up with the dinghy, hoist yourself aboard, and then fire up the motor to do it again.

The real trick to drift snorkeling is to time the weather and the tide. You want a day with moderate winds, virtually no cross chop, and an incoming tide. You do NOT want to drift snorkeling on an outbound tide. Frankly, if anything goes wrong with your dinghy, your motor, or rendezvousing with your dinghy, you want the default location for the whole lot of you to be inside the atoll, not out in the middle of the Pacific. Increased winds and chop, of course, make the waters more dangerous. They also reduce water quality substantially diminishing the value of the experience anyway. Make sure you have a dinghy captain or attach yourself to the dinghy with a relatively short line (long lines get easily caught in the coral). Do NOT put out an anchor on your dinghy. That's a recipe for disaster as the dinghy stops while you get swept along at 5 knots. Finally, make no mistake that drift snorkeling is anything like drift diving. When you snorkel, you stay on the top of the water and generally towards the edge of the channel. There is, therefore, very little danger of getting swept under or into a dangerous eddy. Drift diving, however, involves going deep where the currents can run considerably stronger and back eddy in dangerous ways. It is a good idea to drift dive with someone experienced in the process in general, and in that pass in particular.

Ahe is a marvelous place to drift snorkel given the right conditions. The water quality can be stunning (as it was today), the pass virtually free of vessel traffic, and the pass reasonably safe for swimmers at all levels. DrC and the girls went initially with Loose Pointer while I maintained anchor watch. After an hour or so, however, it became clear that the boats were not going anywhere. On the other side, DrC didn't want me to miss the experience. So I joined the family for my own swimming flights while the girls hung out in the reef just inside the entrance clear of the current poking into little corners and finding all sorts of additional creatures.

After we'd all super saturated our senses on snorkeling, we hauled ourselves wearily aboard Don Quixote with enough time to eat lunch and pull the hook for the slack tide. Then the real work started.

Our anchor and a good fraction of the 150' chain we'd put down had simply disappeared. It took Jaime in the water, Aeron and Mera on the bow, and DrC in his oxygen tank diving, with me at the helm backing and fro'ing for nearly 45 minutes before we finally got ourselves detangled from that mess. All I can say to those considering the Ahe passage snorkeling, just drive your dinghy 5 miles from the village anchorage. Don't even try to take your yacht. In the meantime, Loose Pointer was having their own windlass problems. At one point, the two of us had pretty much given up hope that we'd get out of there tonight and on our way. But in a seemingly miraculous unsnarling of ground tackle, suddenly both boats were free, out of the pass on the beginning of the ebb tide, and sails up for the overnight trip to Rangiroa.

On the whole -- despite the extra exhausting effort and the tense moments when we thought were going to kiss our new chain and our loyal Bruce goodbye -- it was worth it. Given the opportunity to do so, we'll absolutely do it again.

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