Much better pass this time!
21 June 2015 | Fakarava Atoll - North
I am very happy to report that our experience sailing into the north pass at the Fakarava Atoll was exactly the opposite of the Makemo "harrowing" experience. It was fantastic! But being in the right place at the right time to exit or enter any one of these atolls safely is dictated absolutely by the tides and currents at each pass. And since getting to an exit pass from inside an atoll usually involves dodging coral heads, we are further constrained by the need to have the sun behind us or, at worst overhead when navigating … NOT in our eyes.
For this particular passage from our anchorage in northwest Makemo, we had to get going no later than 9:30 AM for the 1 ¾ hour trek to the pass with the sun still in a good position. But we couldn’t actually exit the pass until around 12:30, when the outgoing current approached slack to allow a safe transit and avoid excessive eddies, so there would be some time to kill before going through. However, on our way to the pass, we got hit by a small squall, which obliterated our visibility. I turned us around 180 degrees and followed our track back (we had “tracking” on the chart plotter, so it created a nice red line to follow) until the squall passed and we could see again. That used up some of our kill time, but the visibility at the end was somewhat diminished.
Heidi usually takes up position at the bow with a handheld VHF radio for these dodging and weaving exercises, so we can communicate clearly as to where the coral “boomies” are and which way I should steer around them. This effort is aided by our having created our own geo-referenced satellite imagery (from Google Earth) of all of our intended atoll passes. Coupled with GPS input, this allows us to “see” on the computer and iPad our actual track around the coral heads, which show up as white spots on the imagery. While we can’t blindly trust this technology, it gives us a great head-start as to a likely path of least resistance; we still need Heidi’s sharp eyes at the bow, but it is taxing: the sun is bright and hot and the glare is very hard on the eyes.
Anyway, we eased out of the Makemo pass with about a knot and a half of current behind us … no eddies … easy exit. This gave way to a mostly beautiful 115 nautical mile overnight passage to the north Fakarava atoll entrance. However, a 19 to 20 hour passage doesn’t fit all that well with roughly 6 hour tide cycles, so we had to wait outside the pass for a couple of hours before we could enter. Slack high-tide had passed about two hours before we arrived, so the outgoing current was creating the same kind of turbulence that we muscled through in Makemo. We definitely wanted to avoid that, so anticipating the wait, we sailed around a bit and practiced heaving-to until it was time to make the approach.
It was like setting up for the start of a race, and the wind was perfect! It was about 16 knots from NNW, so we set up for a beam reach to enter through the northeast side of the pass, fall off to a broad reach once inside (to avoid a nearby reef) and then a hard left into a beautiful close reach down the “fairway” to our intended anchorage. Couldn’t have been more perfect and fun … sailing through … no engine … perfect wind … awesomeness defined!
The composite picture above shows a screen capture of the satellite imagery I am talking about (on the left) and the “boomies” Heidi had to watch out for. At the correct sun angle, these pop up as bright turquoise spots in the lagoon, but in poor light they can really catch you by surprise. Heidi was awesome up there, and Wavelength, following us, was very grateful.