Some of you may think that when Eric and I decide to sail someplace, we just wake up one morning and say, "Hey, let's sail to (insert destination) today." We have done that, if we're in an area with lots of nice anchorages nearby. But it usually takes a bit more planning than that. Sometimes, it takes a lot more planning.
Most of the time, we'll leave an anchorage knowing that we want to have our anchor down again before sundown, which give us quite a bit of wiggle room with the timing. This isn't the case, though, when considering a passage to or within the Tuamotus. When you're planning to visit one of these coral atolls, a whole extra level of planning comes into play.
Let me give you an idea of the variables we had to juggle, when planning our recent passage to the
Tuamotus from Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas.
*If you really don't care about the planning aspects, feel free to scroll down to the end for a description of our visit to Kauehi, and some pretty pictures. *
First, we start by asking ourselves these questions:
Q1. Where do we want to go?
Q2. How far away is it?
Q3. What's the weather likely to be during the passage? And after we arrive?
Q4. If our destination is an atoll, as in this case, when do we need to leave, so that we arrive at the pass near the time of slack water?
Here's how we answered these questions for our recent trip.
Q1. Where do we want to go? Answer: an atoll in the Tuamotus.
That was easy, but moving on...
Q1a. Which atoll?
As I mentioned in a previous post, the Tuamotus are a group of 78 low-lying coral atolls, spread across almost 1000 miles of ocean. So there are many choices, and each atoll is unique. Some of these atolls are closed reefs, without passes, so if you visit them, you'd have to find a place on the outside shallow enough for you to anchor. You'd also want to be sure that you were on the leeward side of the atoll, and that the wind wasn't predicted to shift around and push you toward shore. We don't want to anchor outside a reef, so all of those atolls were out for us.
Other atolls have passes that are too narrow or too shallow for cruising boats to get through; those were out, too.
Some atolls have passes that are navigable by cruising boats. These were on our list. Among these, some have wide, easy passes, while others have passes that are sinuous or coral-studded and dicey to navigate. We wanted an easy pass for our first atoll visit, so we made a short list of atolls with easy passes. Go to Q2.
Q2. How far away is it?
In our case, these atolls ranged from about 300 to 600 miles from Fatu Hiva, our current location. Depending on the wind, this could require between 2 and 5 days' travel. Skip down to Q3.
Q3. What's the weather likely to be during the passage? And after we arrive?
Looking at the weather forecasts, we noted that we had about a four day window of really good sailing weather, before a bunch of nasty weather arrived in the Tuamotus, with the first big winds arriving from the southeast. We wanted to be through the pass, and anchored in a sheltered spot before this weather arrived. Based on this, we shortened our list to two atolls that we thought we could reach during the weather window: Kauehi and Raroia.
Q1a again. Which atoll?
For our purposes, Kauehi and Raroia each has benefits and drawbacks. Here are some we considered...
-Kauehi is about 500 miles away; Raroia is about 400 miles away.
-Kauehi is farther west; Raroia is farther east. The bad weather will be filling in from the southeast, so going farther west would keep us in good weather – and ahead of the bad weather – longer.
-Kauehi has a wide, easy pass, but requires three days of travel; Raroia has a more narrow, circuitous pass, but is almost one day closer.
-based on our expected sailing speed, we would arrive at Kauehi on the morning of the third day; unless we sailed really slowly, we would arrive at Raroia in the middle of the second night.
This last item matters because regardless of which atoll we chose, we would have to enter its lagoon through a pass in the reef, during the sliver of time during which the current would be slack or nearly slack, which you always want to do in daylight. Currents in some of the easy passes we picked can get up to 7 knots if you pick the wrong time.
So you can't just waltz right in when you arrive. No. You have to time your transit for slack water. This is usually at high or low tide, but the timing of slack water can also be influenced by the presence of high winds or high swells that can push waves over the lower portions of the atoll, water which now has to exit through the pass. In severe cases, slack water may not occur for a few days. So it's possible that you could travel for three days, arrive at an atoll, and not be able to go inside for a couple of days. This would not be good, especially if you're expecting a visit from some nasty weather.
So calculating when slack water will be, can be kind of complicated.
Fortunately, some crafty computer-savvy cruisers have devised a spreadsheet that they call the Tuamotus Current Guesstimator. This nifty bit of software has been shared among those of us planning a visit to the atolls. Into this spreadsheet, we enter the atoll name, the date we plan to visit, and a fudge factor for any recent high winds and seas. Then, using data stored in associated tables, the spreadsheet calculates the likely time of slack water and the currents expected at the pass for each hour on that day. We've heard reports of the Guesstimator being spot-on, and others where it was way off. Usually it's pretty close.
So what's a voyager to do? Well, the Prudent Navigator would arrive outside the pass a little earlier than the predicted slack water, get out his or her binoculars, and go in when conditions seem reasonable. That's what we plan to do.
All this brings us to Q4. When do we leave?
Do we leave now, or wait for a longer weather window? Letting this weather window slip by would mean waiting in Fatu Hiva for at least another week. Plus, the sailing looked to be really good along the way if we left now.
If we jumped on this weather window, we would want to leave at a time such that...
...we'll arrive at the pass of the atoll of our choice – two, maybe three days hence – early enough to be able to catch a period of slack water or low flow during daylight hours, while still leaving enough daylight to navigate across the lagoon to an anchorage, before the bad weather arrives,
...we'll have good weather for the passage, with a suitable amount of wind for sailing.
Okay. Now that you know what went into our decision, here's
What We Actually Did:
We left Fatu Hiva with both Kauehi and Raroia as options, planning to finalize our choice based on actual sailing conditions and updated weather forecasts along the way. During our passage, we downloaded weather forecasts at least once a day, to keep an eye on the upcoming weather. We had pretty consistent, 15-20 knot winds the whole way, so we were able to sail along at 7-8 knots most of the time, which began to give us an idea of how far we might travel before the snarly weather hit. It also confirmed that if we went to Raroia, we would arrive at night. (We have a hard time slowing down.)
One day into our trip, we decided to head for Kauehi, sailing as fast as we could, so that we would arrive in the morning of the third day, as close to the time of slack water as we could get. The Guesstimator calculated this to be 7:38 am IF there were no high winds or high seas, though another cruiser (with a more recent version of the Guesstimator) told us during the morning radio net that it would be closer to 9 am. At this point, there wasn't much we could do anyway, to change our arrival time. The pass at Kauehi is wide and deep enough that unless conditions were really boisterous, a boat with a reasonable engine could navigate through it most of the time (another reason we chose Kauehi over Raroia).
The palm-studded outline of Kauehi jutted up above the horizon at dawn of the third morning, and at 9 am we were approaching the pass. Through binoculars, we saw some small breakers rolling off to the right side of the pass, and some small standing waves setting up on the left, beginning to spread to the middle. It looked doable, so we continued ahead.
Entering the pass with 6.5 knots of boat speed, we were soon slowed to 2.5 knots by the outgoing current. Obviously, this was not slack water, but SCOOTS could handle the conditions just fine. We motored passed small whirlpools and bumped next to some two-foot-high standing waves, but encountered nothing that was too boisterous.
In the pass
Five minutes later, we were through, heading across the lagoon in a buoyed channel toward the sheltered village anchorage, where we would drop anchor in the calm turquoise water, and comfortably sit out the wind and rain that were soon to come.
We spent the next week exploring Kauehi's town, shores and reefs, often in the good company of David and Kim from s/v Maluhia, who were already settled in the village anchorage when we arrived. Kauehi's one town, Tearavero, has a church, a post office (which supplies wifi!),
two small stores, about 200 inhabitants, all of them quite friendly, and probably as many dogs, many of them quite skinny.
These guys are quite happy and well-fed
No goats, no chickens. The town was celebrating the Polynesian holiday of heiva, by holding fun events each night in the town "square." Some of these events included a dance contest for kids; a Zumba contest; a volleyball game; and a petanque tournament, a game similar to bocce. Two snack bars and a disco were erected for the occasion, the disco consisting of a shed emanating flashing colored lights and a thumping bass beat.
Eric's beachcombing finds
Coconut palms are the only trees that grow on the atoll, and the residents gather the nuts to make copra, which they sell to buyers on the monthly supply ship.
As no fruits or vegetables are grown on the island, and the lagoon's reef fish are believed to be infected with dangerous ciguatera toxin, residents rely on the provisions brought by the supply ship and fish they catch outside the reef, which are toxin-free. France provides each resident with a stipend (I don't know the details), and each house has a satellite dish.
When asked by our friends on Maluhia, whether they were concerned about the effects on their atoll, of rising sea level associated with global climate change, town residents waved it off and said, "No, we're not worried." If my French skills were better than they are (nonexistent), I would love to have a conversation with them about this subject, as they are living at what the rest of the world considers a "ground zero" for climate change effects.
We saw this in the water when we were walking along the shore. Can you tell what it is? I'll tell you next time...
Because the Pacific islands are so far away from any continents, the shorelines are devoid of the usual avian suspects that you expect to see at the beach or along rocky shores. It seems quiet and almost lonely, without the pelicans, cormorants, and gulls we'd become accustomed to having around. In the Marquesas, the shorebirds I saw included some great frigatebirds and noddies, and the occasional fairy tern; once or twice a sandpiper. On Kauehi, I saw four species of birds – lesser frigatebirds, great crested terns, brown boobies, and black noddies – and no land birds at all.
After a week at Kauehi, we're off to Fakarava Atoll. See you later...