Cyclone season strategies in French Polynesia: hauling out at Apataki Carenage in the Tuamotus Archipelago

7 Aug

The Cyclone season in French Polynesia runs during the Austral summer, November through April. Every year more and more boats choose to spend more than one season in French Polynesia, enjoying some of the best cruising grounds in the world rather than rushing through the South Pacific in 6 months to reach New Zealand or Australia by the beginning of November.

There are several strategies these boats employ in order to minimize their risk during the Cyclone season in French Polynesia, informed by the seasonal onset of El Niño, neutral, or La Niña conditions, personal preference, ease of travel to their destination of choice, insurance parameters, cost, and facility availability.

There are 5 archipelagos in French Polynesia. The Society Islands, which include Tahiti, Mo’orea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora, Maupiti, and Maupiha’a and lie close to the 18 degrees South parallel, are historically the most likely to be reached by a cyclone, especially during the El Niño years. They also experience a significant increase in rainy weather, humidity, and higher temperatures. The Tuamotus Archipelago islands, which lie further North and West from the Societies, and include atolls like Rangiroa, Fakarava, Apataki, Makemo, are only 2-3 days sail away from Tahiti and boast a much smaller risk from cyclones and drier weather for the Austral summer, although they are still in the cyclone belt. The Marquesas Islands lie further north along the 9 degree South parallel, about 3-4 days sailing from the Tuamotus, are technically outside the cyclone belt, and showcase mostly sunny days, not to mention a cornucopia of fresh produce and rich culture which they share gladly with visitors on yachts. And last, but not least, way to the South lie the Austral and Gambier Archipelagos, which are widely accepted as outside the cyclone belt risk.

French Polynesia Archipelagos, curtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica online

Strategy 1: Cruise/haul out in the Society Islands. Many boats, local and longer transit, continue to cruise the Society Islands during the cyclone season and balance their risks by having plans to retreat to cyclone holes or haul out during the ‘worst’ of the season with the reward of having the usually busy, popular anchorages all to themselves.

  • There is a good cyclone hole in Tahiti between Tahiti Iti and Tahiti Nui, in Phaeton Bay, where once can find temporary shelter from storms or a place to leave your boat at anchor with a boat watching service (more details on that can be found in the amazing Societies Compendium compiled by SV Soggy Paws). This is a very wet spot, even during the ‘dry’ season, and according to the folks we talked to who left their boats there, one can expect some mold and leaks to develop.
  • Haul out in Tahiti at the small facility Tahiti Nautic Centre in Phaeton Bay. Usually this yard is full with local boats, and a reservation is required way in advance. Same wet weather warning applies.
  • Marina Taina in Tahiti: many boats get a permanent spot at Marina Taina, either on their docks or mooring balls. The spot is open to the North and West though, and even with the reef protection I imagine this would be rough spot to be, especially so close to all the other boats.
  • Haul out or mooring ball in Raiatea at Raiatea Carenage or CNI (Chantier Naval des Isles). Raiatea is the main charter hub in the Societies and they have good haul out and repair facilities. Cruiser tales speak of friendly staff, although everyone seems to have a (different) favorite, and a very wet very mosquito ridden yard during the rainy season.

Strategy 2: Cruise to one of the archipelagos with no cyclone risk, either to the Australs and Gambiers, or to the Marquesas. The Australs and the Gambiers are extremely remote, even more so than the Marquesas, and most cruisers enjoy beautiful, solitary anchorages and the kind of welcome and cultural integration from locals only possible from remote islands. If looking to leave your boat and travel, the Marquesas also have options for storing your boat at a simple haul out facility (limits of draft and gross tonnage) or moored with a local boat watch service.

Strategy 3: Cruise/haul out in the Tuamotus. The Tuamotus are a large archipelago of almost 80 low lying atolls (and one raised one) which span a huge area of 850 square kilometers. They are technically in the cyclone belt, although they have a very small risk of cyclones, with only one historically recorded that I could find. Many boats who choose to cruise here during the cyclone season monitor the weather closely, with plans to run to the Marquesas islands in case one makes its way all this way East. A direct cyclone hit in the Tuamotus, as unlikely as it might be, would be devastating as the atolls are low lying islands with virtually no protection from winds or storm surge. The other option in the Tuamotus is the haul out facilities at Apataki Carenage, where boats are carefully pulled out of the water with a tractor trailer on a raised Motu in the South-East corner of the atoll, and anchored down to concrete blocks.

This is the yard we chose to store our boat during the holiday season 2018-2019 when we traveled back to the US and Europe. We were attracted by the option to store Bella Marina in Apataki for cyclone season by several factors: a promise of drier weather (read less/no mold), a lessened risk of a cyclone hit compared to the Society Islands, and warm, glowing recommendations from friend cruisers who described it as a very friendly yard, with unusually beautiful settings. I mean, when was the last time you had a positive recommendation for a haul-out yard? Most facilities are dirty, noisy, tension-filled places where most folks ‘on the hard’ can’t wait to get their work done and get back in the water without leaving their whole bank account and sanity behind.

The overall cost was neutral for the amount of time we stayed, as the savings in haul-out and storage fees were pretty much eaten out by our flights to and from Papeete. A cheaper option to travel is on the Cobia supply ship, which takes about 2 days (with no bed or food/water provided) but it’s extremely affordable. For the Cobia we got quoted at the equivalent of $40 for both of us (one way), whereas for the plane tickets we payed $500 for both of us.

The potential draw-backs were the remoteness of Apataki Atoll, with only one flight per week back to Papeete, which sometimes gets cancelled (gulp) and our size which was right at the limit for their method of haul-out. The Carenage uses a tractor/trailer with a hard limit of 2m for draft and 20 tons for tonnage. Bella Marina is a 44 foot Hunter DS monohull, with a 1.9 meter draft and a bit bigger than the usual monohulls the yard handles. They are especially well set up for catamarans, even larger than 44 feet, but while we were there we only saw a handful of monohulls, all of them smaller than Bella Marina.

Pucker factor: Not a whole lot of clearance with a 2m draft…

The Apataki Carenage website,, has little information, but enough to contact them through email when they assured us they could handle our boat at high tide. We reserved a spot by paying a small fee (a couple of hundred dollars equivalent) by making a deposit into their account at the local bank, which was then deducted from the overall cost. Easy peasy.

We arrived in Apataki in early December, a couple of days before our haul-out date, after an overnight sail from Fakarava. Our strategy for getting back to the Tuamotus from the Societies was to wait for a break in the usual SE/E trades, with little to no wind and motor back on calm seas, which worked out great. These quiet breaks happen every 3-4 weeks during the season, and are a great way to make your back from the leewards to Tahiti or from Tahiti to the Tuamotus.

We used the SW pass close to the main town of Niutahi (pop. 350), which was an easy entrance compared to other Tuamotus passes if you pay attention to the S-curve channel and tidal flow once inside. We didn’t stop in town (apparently you can tie up to the wharf when no supply ships are in town but we didn’t know the details, how to get permission, etc) and proceeded towards the Carenage under engine, bouncing around in 2-3 foot fetch and wind on the nose following the directions from the Tuamotus Compendium to avoid the two large shallow reefs on the way, which are also easily seen even on cloudy days.

We were keen to get to the Carenage anchorage anyway, where you can anchor in 20-30 feet of clear water with scattered coral bommies. We had read about mooring balls being avaible at the Carenage, but that was not the case anymore. There are a couple of sticks with white small balls on top marking the reef on the approach to the haul-out site. Thankfully we had our binoculars ready and figured out quickly they were not moorings. There were 7 other boats in the anchorage, 5 waiting for haul-out and 2 just hanging out. The haul-out schedule can get pretty busy late in the season, as the yard closes in mid-December for a month.

Possibly the most beautiful boat yard in the world

The anchorage was bouncy for a couple of days because of the NE winds, but it got quiet once the SE trades returned. This allowed us to prep the boat for haul-out by filling our tanks with fresh watermaker water (the yard has limited drinking water coming from rain collection, sometimes unavailable, and ground water for washing the boat), cleaning and organizing the inside, getting the sails down and packing them away inside, etc. We had already been eating through our supplies and had just enough food to last us through the day of our departure. The yard is very isolated and the closest (very modest) store for getting food and supplies is a one-hour-and-40-dollar-boat-ride away so its important to take everything with you that you might need from Tahiti or a larger atoll. The office can also order boat maintenance, painting, etc supplies from Tahiti for a fee, with a 1-2 week delay for arrival by supply ship.

Pro Tip: Take enough food and water with you if you head out to an isolated yard like Apataki Carenage. You should also pre-purchase hull paint and other needed maintenance and repair supplies from Tahiti if you need to do any work while on the hard.

The day of the haul-out we got ‘in line’ behind a catamaran and waited for high water. One thing I would recommend is to be proactive with your communication and ask clarifying questions about the time/date/order of the haul-out. Everyone speaks English (and French of course) so language is not a barrier. We didn’t have any particular problems, but if you are used to the clinical efficiency of American yards, you will not find it here (or anywhere in French Polynesia). Just roll with it.

I can’t deny the pucker factor heading into the haul-out area, which requires you to basically beach your boat in the sand a couple of feet away from shore after picking your way through some nasty looking coral heads. Fortunately we had no wind and beautiful weather, and were able to secure ourselves with the mooring lines provided by the attentive staff. Those guys are amazing, diving under the boat and helping position the haul-out trailer the right way to pull our 10-ish tons out of the water and on terra firma. If you’ve never gotten pulled out by a tractor trailer in your full keeled monohull on (what seemed like a very steep) incline, it’s an experience you (and your boat) will never forget. Fortunately everything went well, but I do get a feeling we were right at the limit on both length (the trailer fit was short) and draft. A feeling I confirmed later with Tony, the haul-out boss, who basically implied we were great customers and guests but maybe next time we should find a bigger yard, oui?

It helped that we had a laminated schema of our hull with haul-out points clearly marked, and Tony spent a long time in the water knocking on the hull to find the strong bulkhead points.

Pro Tip: Make sure you have a laminated copy of the schematic of your boat’s haul-out strong points to hand out to your friendly yard staff, rain, shine, or underwater.

Once on dry land, we got a pressure rinse (no water recycling here unfortunately, so I felt good about having our environmentally friendly paint on) and were positioned in the yard for our permanent spot. The yard is fairly level, but only gravel, so the hull supports need to be hammered in just right to get a level boat inside.

Our girl on the hard for cyclone season in Apataki Carenage

We had a couple of days ‘on the hard’ before leaving, which allowed us to do some more deep cleaning and organizing.

We left very little food on the boat, mainly some UHT milk, coconut cream, sesame seeds, and canned tuna stored in a plastic box in case they exploded while we were gone, mac & cheese taken out of its packaging and re-packed in many layers of freezer bags and in an air tight container, honey, soy sauce, and olive & avocado oils. All spices were discarded (we don’t really use them anyway) except for salt, which I tried to air-tight pack so it wouldn’t get soggy. We also didn’t want to attract any critters with anything left out in the open. We eat almost no carbs (the mac & cheese is emergency food) so we had no flour, rice, or other grains onboard but those are definitely the kind of foods we would have just gifted to the yard compound before leaving as they always sprout bugs after 2-3 months even in air tight containers.

All the lockers were emptied, wiped with vinegar and left open for airflow. The fridge and freezer were emptied and cleaned with vinegar, and left semi-open. All clothes were packed in airtight plastic bags and left on the beds. The sump pumps and the bilge were emptied and cleaned and dried. Same with the washing machine and dishwasher, which were left open. I used a small extraction pump to empty the water out of the little sump pumps in the machines, replaced with vinegar, and pumped again dry. All cushions were cleaned and piled in the beds and covered with a sheet. I placed towels and a bowl under that one spot under it windows that always leaks. All wood was wiped with vinegar & water to prevent mold. And last but not least, before leaving, I put enough bug traps and boric acid (previously acquired @ Carrefour in Tahiti, which is kind of like a French Target) around the boat to detract a prehistoric hoard of giant cockroaches (which is how I always imagine them anyway in the tropics).

We keep our cockpit and decks pretty uncluttered to start with, so the outside was much easier. We already had the sails down and packed away from the anchorage, so we took down the soft sun shade and placed the coolers from the back step in the cockpit, put all loose bits away in the lazarette, and dropped our anchor and chain on a wooden pallet provided by the yard (extra cost) so it would be nicely flaked and not become a rusty mess in the anchor locker.

The engine had just had an oil change before crossing to the Tuamotus, so Petter did a quick check-up and wipe-down. We also left our solar panels connected, trusting that our solar chargers will handle the loads without frying the batteries. It turned out to be a great choice, and ended up bringing some life into out 13 year old batteries when we came back. With all circuits off except for the chargers, they happily floated back to happier times & charges under the Tuamotus sun.

We left our diesel tanks almost full (sans the diesel it took us to get to Apataki) and put in an additive to prevent diesel-bug. Our water tank was almost full as well, and I added half a cup of chlorine to prevent any nasty growth. They both faired perfectly.

Pro Tip: Do as much of the boat prep as possible while still in the water, and take advantage of the sunny days to keep things dry and clean. The yard is much hotter and going up and down the stairs to get things to and from the boat is not as fun jumping in the dingy. Also, did I mention the mosquitos and no-see-ums on land?

If you know me, you’ll also know I am obsessed with not letting any bugs or critters on the boat. While we were living in the yard, I had seen a mouse sauntering around on the outside of another boat, so I had a strict policy of always having the windows and doors closed while in the yard when we left the boat, and always having the screens on (including the entrance) when we were on the boat. The yard has tons of mosquitoes at sunset and sunrise, and sand flies on the adjacent beach, but that’s pretty normal for land life and I saw no other nasty bugs. It’s one of the cleanest, safest, and prettiest yards you will ever be in, not to mention the friendliness of the owners and staff.

Pro Tip: Stock up on mosquito repellent, candles, anti-mosquito coils, bug traps, mouse traps, moth balls, etc in Tahiti for your boat prep in the yard. Vinegar & water makes a great solution to wipe everything down before leaving to prevent or clean mold.

The facilities in the yard are basic at best. There are a couple of toilets and a shower that have seen better days, a small area for yachties to hang out, and a couple of long hoses with ground water. I believe there are also a couple of basic rooms you can rent if you prefer to not stay on the boat, but I didn’t get a chance to see them.

The facilities: Toilet, Shower, Toilet. Hand rinse with a hose.

Traveling to and from the yard is a bit of an adventure, but it was fun. Our departure date was a windy, choppy day that resulted in a very wet ride in the open panga to the Apataki airport. The family who runs the yard also has a guest house in town, so we got a chance to get a coffee and shower and change into less wet, more airplane appropriate clothes before our flight.

Pro Tip: Wear swimming gear & flip-flops on the panga trip and change once you get to town. Use plastic trash bags to protect your luggage from spray.

The airport is tiny (think small bus station), open air, and overrun with chickens and dogs. The airplanes are also tiny (6-8 passengers) and the luggage allowance is basically one small carry-on per person, under 10 kg (think personal item on normal planes). They measure and weigh the luggage, which we totally understood once we took off from the super-short coral runway – there is a good reason to have a wight limit. We lucked out because one passenger didn’t show up, so our check-in bags with winter clothes were allowed on the plane, but we were *this* close to arriving in Paris in sarongs, shorts and flip-flops in the middle of December.

Tiny plane for a tiny airport with a tiny landing strip in Apataki

Pro Tip: When flying in and out of Apataki, be aware of the extremely small luggage allowance. You can send your luggage ahead on the Cobia, leave it with Tahiti Crew in Tahiti before going to Apataki, or fly out of the neighboring atoll of Arutua which has a bigger runway allowing them to fly larger planes with a ‘normal’ luggage allowance. The yard can arrange drop-off and pick-up from Arutua for an extra fee.

The once-a-week flight from Apataki was on a Friday (the schedule changes seasonally, so check with the airline or online), so we stayed at the Airport Motel for one night and flew out the next morning on the French Bee flight to Paris. The Motel location is convenient (cross the street, huff and puff with your luggage for two minutes up the hill, mind the chickens) and the rooms are clean, but nothing fancy. For the return trip we stayed in the same place, and took the flight to Arutua since we needed to carry back some boat parts and food. There is a grocery store a couple of blocks away from the Motel & Airport, and we filled up with cheese, saucisson, veggies, and fresh baguettes before getting on the half-full flight. We however forgot drinking water, which was a bummer as the trip back took basically the full day. The domestic security check was different than what we were used to, and we were allowed to take food & water through, but no alcohol (not that we had any).

Pro Tip: When traveling back to Apataki, take as much food supplies as you can carry in an insulated bag as the ‘provisioning’ on the other side is very hard/non-existent. Don’t forget to fill your water bottle in Tahiti as the rest of the airports don’t have any facilities or drinking water.

Happy to be back in French Polynesia loaded with parts, food, and travel stories

We returned back to the boat after a 5 month absence, and we were happy to find it in great shape. The dry climate of the Tuamotus really makes a difference and the boat was dry, clean, mold-free, and bug and critter free. The weather continued to be sunny and dry and after a quick clean-up and some paint touch-up (we had some paint left from Hawaii) we were back in the water and soon after on our way back to Fakarava for some chilling and diving.

While we were waiting to be launched (busy schedule in April as the dry season was about to start), we cooled off swimming off the beautiful beach next to the yard and taking walks to the ocean side and pass of the Motu we were on. The yard also organized a cruiser get-together with yummy foods (Hawaiian Poke, Poisson Cru, grilled sword fish… I was in food heaven) and great company, conversation, and local songs. Most cruisers were French but really made an effort to speak English for us, and some of the guests were French Polynesian fisheries employees with New Zealand training, and they were happy to practice their English on us.

Friendly locals in Apataki

Overall we had a great experience with Apataki Carenage and would highly recommend them to anyone considering hauling out their boat for the Cyclone season.