Tuamotus Passage, Part 1: It’s All Part of the Adventure, Right?

(now with pictures!)

We said farewell to the Marquesas on Thursday morning, May 13, setting off at 8 AM for what we thought would be a short passage to the atolls of the Tuamotus.  Our selected atoll, Makemo, was 500 miles to the southwest.  Guessing we’d make an average speed of at least 5 knots, we planned to be at the pass into the atoll at noon on Monday, only 4 days and 4 hours away.  Timing is important in Tuamotus; the tidal currents in most of the passes in the atolls are much stronger than we could hope to manage with our engine (some up to 10 kts), so we had to make our entry at slack water.

We had 20 knots of wind on the beam as we left Nuku Hiva and Khamseen scooted along at over 6 knots.  For a brief period we were concerned we’d get there too early.  No problem though, the wind slackened as we passed west of Ua Pou and stayed around 10 knots.  Now we were going a bit too slow but we had lots of time to make it up – we thought.    We had a nice easy passage over the next couple of days – downright boring, just how we like it.  

Then on Sunday morning the wind totally died.  Reluctantly we started the engine.  We estimated we had 70 gallons of our Mexican diesel left, but since we won’t be able to buy any more until we reach Tahiti, we didn’t want to use it all up getting to our first atoll.  We looked at our nav software to weigh our options and found another atoll, Raroia, which lay at the perfect distance for us to reach it by Monday morning.  We eased the throttle up only as much as necessary to keep to the schedule, and soon we were making progress again at about 4 knots.  We were happy; Raroia looked interesting, had a small village, and was a bit off the beaten track.  We had only one more day to go.  Plus, in the calm conditions, the seabirds pointed out a school of tuna right in front of the boat.  K deployed the buzz bomb and within a minute had snagged a gorgeous tuna.  Life was good.

Tuamotus 004

Things changed dramatically as the night came on.  

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A low pressure system far to the south slung a frontal system our way.  The wind increased to near 20 kts so the sails came back out.  Unfortunately the breeze was right on our nose and the seas increased too to a short chop, so forward progress was miserably slow and bouncy.  Then a series of small squalls came up through the darkness that repeatedly threw gusts at us of over 20 knots (quick – reef the sails!) then just as quickly died away (long enough to fool us into easing the reefs back out), but not before drenching the watchman to the bone.  It was one of those nights that made S wonder where the next bus stop was.

By Monday morning the squalls were gone but due to our slow progess overnight we knew we’d have to give up on Raroia and once again decided that Makemo was the place to be.  Perfect!  We cracked off the wind a hair and started sailing again at 6 knots and the motion of the boat was much improved.   Though we now had to add one more day to our passage, it didn’t matter so much, we were making good progress, and one more day wasn’t so bad.  The wind eased throughout the day but we managed to sail until about 2 AM before the wind died once again.  But this time the sea was calm; it was a beautiful night and we were able to time our slow motoring to make it to the northern pass at Makemo in time for slack water at the high tide. 

Makemo 008

We arrived at 7:30 AM – plenty of time to take a good look at the pass and make our entry when conditions looked right. 

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We watched the pass and snuck closer.  We sighted the rangemarkers and other points of reference indicated in our guidebook.  We had our cheat sheets with nav instructions.  We tested K’s conning position up at the spreaders. 

Makemo 003

We watched some more and tested the waters, but the current leading to the pass seemed to be getting more and more agitated.  We backed away.  We turned again toward the pass.  K wanted to ease in and measure the current; S voted to wait.  K, with the requisite testosterone level and oceanographic curiosity, took the helm and started in.  As we got closer to the pass entrance, the sea started looking more and more reminiscent of Deception Pass in Washington – surface boils and whirlpools, and in the distance standing waves just outside the entrance.  Hmmm, why would it be so rough outside the entrance when the tide was supposed to be flooding in, not coming out?  We continued on until the current against us was 5 knots faster than our forward progress and we were reluctant to push our engine any harder.  We turned tail and were quickly flushed offshore.  As we sat there scratching our heads, rechecking our tide tables, and looking up “when is slack tide?” in our French dictionary, a couple of local fishermen came by in their skiff.  We couldn’t understand all they were saying, but we did get the message that – most likely due to the frontal system we’d encountered with its strong south winds – the seas had overtopped the southern end of the atoll and, much like a bathtub, raised the water level inside the lagoon.  All that water was now apparently draining through the two passes, creating much rougher conditions than normal.  The bottom line was that it would not be possible for us to enter, the pass was in full ebb mode all the time. 

What now?  Luckily it was only 9 AM, so we had plenty of daylight left.  We considered our options and decided to head for the other pass into the atoll, this one located on the northwestern end, where  the guidebook said there was a shoal outside the entrance where a boat could anchor and wait for the right conditions for entering.  Of course, this pass was upwind and the wind was only 5 knots.  With little choice we throttled up the engine again and headed for the other pass, 25 miles distant.  Though we were undeniably frustrated and disappointed, we tried to keep a positive attitude and see the humor in all this; after all, it’s all part of the adventure, right?

16°26.65′S 143°57.20′W   19-May-10 03:47 UTC

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