A Most Pleasant Passage
18 May 2008 | Kauehi, Tuamotu Archipelago
We upped anchor in Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas Monday morning and set a course for Kauehi, , nearly 500 miles away in the Tuamotu archipelago.
The Tuamotus, a group of 78 islands, have been called the "Dangerous Archipelago" because the atolls are so low-lying that they are nearly invisible until you're dangerously close to them. Formed by the same geologic processes that formed the Marquesas and the Societies, the Tuomotus are significantly older. What was once a lush, mountainous, volcanic island is now a collapsed caldera, having subsided below sea level. All that is left are the coral reefs that formed around the islands thousands of years ago. The islands, now, are essentially circular reefs with motus (islets) on top of the reefs. While the northern and western sides generally have the motus, the southern sides are usually bare or awash coral reef.
In addition to the dangers of navigating around the islands, it can also be dangerous navigating inside them. Of the 78 atolls, only a few have navigable passes to the lagoons within. For those that do, one must calculate slack tides to avoid being swept out of control by the strong currents that develop with the tidal changes. Once inside the lagoon you have to watch for submerged coral heads which, if hit, could really ruin your day. Unless the sun is directly overhead or behind you they can be difficult to spot due to glare on the water's surface. It's a good idea to put someone up in the rigging where they can get a better view of potential hazards.
That being said, having accurate charts and navigation aids (GPS), we feel safe traveling to these lovely islands.
We were sailing in the company of 3 other boats: Elusive, Blue Plains Drifter and Scarlett O'Hara. It didn't take long for Elusive and Scarlett O'Hara (much faster boats) to leave us in their wake, but Blue Plains Drifter and we were nicely matched (they are a Tayana 48 also) and we sailed within sight of each other the entire time.
We were expecting a 3 to 4 day passage. Ideally we would arrive Thursday afternoon and enter with the afternoon's slack tide. If we couldn't maintain a decent speed however we would have to heave-to and stand off the island until the next morning's slack.
The weather was gorgeous and for the first 2 days the wind was in the 12-15 knot range with very little swell (and you know how I feel about that!) so we were comfortably moving right along at 7 to 8 knots of boat speed.
On the third day the wind became light (7 knots of wind) but because the seas were so flat we were still doing 4-5 knots. It was so comfortable that when I was down below I would temporarily forget we were underway- it felt like we were sitting in a marina! The wind continued to lighten until we were just ghosting along at 2-3 knots, but we didn't mind: the ride was comfortable, the sails weren't slatting, and we knew we had missed our Thursday afternoon arrival so we had an extra 12 hours to work with. No point in motoring just to park outside the pass entrance all night.
About 60 miles out, though, the wind died completely. As pleasant as the passage was we didn't want to be out here for another week so we had to suck it up and turn on the engine. We arrived outside the pass around 6:00 am. ElusiveScarlett O'Hara had been in a holding pattern there for most of the night, so we and Blue Plains Drifter killed our motors and we all drifted companionably waiting for the sunrise and the slack tide. Blue Plains Drifter kept themselves busy hauling in the 40 pound (!) Dorado they'd caught just as they arrived. (There goes John's theory.)
Around 8:00 we queued up behind Elusive and we entered the pass and motored the 8 miles across the lagoon to anchor in front of the village. Yes, a most pleasant passage, indeed.