Tuamotus Passage, Part 2: Our first atoll entrance

We motored along slowly all Tuesday afternoon toward Passe Tapuhiria, at the northwestern corner of Makemo atoll. 

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As we got close, we saw the mast of a sailboat that was anchored inside the lagoon, so we called out to them over the VHF.  We got an immediate reply from "Infini" (a Westsail 43).  We and asked them their opinion of the conditions in the pass.  They noted that although we’d likely have some current against us, the pass looked pretty good.  Great!  Eager to find an anchorage for the night we pressed on.   As we approached the pass, we confirmed that we knew the correct heading to make it through, and we agreed we’d go as high as 3200 rpms on the engine if needed.  Our navigation software told us it was about half an hour after low tide.

The water was full of riffles and swirls as we started getting near the wide entrance to the pass.  A quick comparison of our speed over ground (SOG, given by the GPS) to the boat speed through the water (more accurately, the speed of the water flowing past the boat – given by the speedometer installed in the hull) showed we had about 2 knots of current coming out of the pass against us.  No problem, we were still making good forward progress and had lots of engine "wheaties" to call upon.  

We entered the pass and steering became a bit more lively as the swirling water tried to push the boat around.  The currents also made the depth sounder start to give really shallow readings – though we knew they weren’t real, they always make S’s heart skip a beat.  The real excitement began just as we cleared the inside of the pass.  Here, two side channels join the main channel and the turbulent mixing of the streams slung the boat from side to side, while the current slowly increased in strength.  There were also two solid reefs flanking the pass.  We fought to keep the boat centered between the two channel markers and throttled up a bit on the Yanmar.  Things still looked good, we only had a little farther to go.  We got through that swirly section and thought we were in the clear (and apparently so did Infini who called out congratulations to us over the radio), but then we found ourselves facing an increasingly strong current as we continued up the channel. (The flow volume was probably only a third of the total leaving the atoll but at this point the channel cross section had decreased, causing a higher flow velocity.)   We took the engine up to 3200 rpms.  Our boat speed reached over 6 knots while our SOG dwindled to 2 knots, then 1 knot….then 0.5 knot!  We bumped the throttle up a wee bit more.  The engine roared.  We held our breath, hoped the engine would hold together, and watched our SOG.   It came up a bit to 1 knot: we hung on – we were still making progress and it was too late to turn back now. 

Slowly, finally, we reached the marker that told us we could turn out of the channel.   We turned the boat in the direction of the anchorage area and scanned the water for coral heads.  K scoped out a clear spot as best he could in the light of the setting sun, and we gratefully dropped our anchor in the fading light.  We turned off the engine and sat wide-eyed in the cockpit, calming our nerves. The lagoon was as still as a pond.   We vowed to avoid such drama in the future as best we could, and have since learned that rather than following the tide table, cruiser lore holds that the trick to timing the slack water at atoll passes is based on the moon: 3 hrs before and 5 hrs after moonset, and 4 hrs before and 5 hrs after moonrise.   The next day we moved to a bigger sandy patch amid the coral and deployed a 3 point anchor spread for position keeping in the middle of the clear spot.

There were great rewards for us in Makemo. We had the north end of the atoll to ourselves for 2 days and then the intrepid Anglo-Belgian crew on Flash 5 showed up and invited us to dinner on their 50 ft-ish shiny Amel Super Maramu 2000. With an espresso machine.  And a dishwasher.  And a washing machine.

The next day we teamed up to dive the pristine ocean side of the atoll, filling our tanks with Koen‘s awesome compressor.

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The coral was spectacular, rivaling the best Flower Gardens of the Red Sea (unfortunately it was too deep to take our camera).  K was ecstatic and considered shadowing Flash 5 around the rest of the Pacific:  "Ah, Captain Koen, imagine meeting you here, let us fill our tanks and explore the ocean depths between espressos and India Pale Ales."

We attempted to reciprocate their generosity with pizzas, homebrew, hand-peeled pamplemousse, turkish coffee, and the best hospitality Bint al Khamseen could offer with virtually no fresh food left. It was a great evening with enlightened conversation covering Belgian brewing and hops, draft horses, aviation, environmental remediation, subtle jokes about the French, and witty English commentary on everything. S charmed the three distinguished gentlemen with her best tropical grace while K shoveled pizza and homebrew out the companionway until all were sated long after the sun had set.

Sunday 077

16°27.00′S 143°57.75′W   25-May-10 21:16 UTC

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