Friday, May 28, 2004

Passage Marquesas to Tuamotus

We were finally heading for the Tuamotus, also known as the dangerous archipelago, which is a group of over 70 low lying atolls that runs for several hundred miles in a northwest - southeast direction between the Marquesas and Society Islands. They get their name because they are low lying which makes them difficult to see until you are about four miles away. In most cases a palm tree is the tallest object and strange currents can exist between them, adding to the dangers. An atoll is basically an ancient volcano that has sunk back into the sea, leaving only a fringing coral reef around the old rim. The coral reef is not very thick (1/4 mile) but the atolls can be 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, they look (and feel) like great big salt water ponds with 100 foot depths on the inside and 3000 foot depths just on the outside. Usually there is only one pass in the reef which means all the water fills and empties from one spot creating very strong tidal currents (6-9 knots in some cases), faster than our boat will travel. This creates a navigators nightmare because you have to leave and enter the pass at slack tide, which makes inter-atoll route planning an interesting task to say the least. THEN you have to time your path across the atoll so that the sun is above or behind you so that you can see the coral heads that litter the inside of the lagoons.

We listened to the normal cruisers net and discovered that most boats were traveling the northern route through the island group, so we decided that we wanted to “go off the beaten path” and travel the most southern route we could reach based on winds. . The far southern atolls were used by the French for atomic testing and are off limits to cruisers, so we were aiming for Raroia, Makemo or Kauehi.

Our route from the Marquesas to Tuamotus

It was about a 550 nautical mile trip, which we planned for three and a half or four days. For me it was nice to be at sea again, I think we got stuck in our last anchorage in the Marquesas too long.  KT pre-cooked a lot of excellent amazingly great tasting food, which made her less sea sick, so we were like a sailing machine. Our goal was to aim as far southeast in the Tuamotus as possible so that we could sail down wind to the other atolls that we felt like visiting. The wind was further from the southeast than normal so we spent the first couple of days closer to the wind (70o) than we had planned. As usual the swells were from a different direction (southerly) so we had a pretty wet ride as the swells smacked us right on the nose. After a few days our friends that left a day behind us, who were not enjoying the bashing, decided they were heading for Kauehi. Kauehi was our furthest west destination but an atoll with a very easy pass entrance and still off the main northern path. We bore off which created a much more comfortable ride, although we did have to reduce sail so that we would not arrive in the middle of the night.

I can’t imagine traveling like Cook through these islands without charts and radar, if you blinked you’d miss them.  I was a little nervous so we used our radar and spotted the atoll right in its charted position. The electronic charts we used were exact, like a big person looking down from the sky and drawing us on the chart.  Now we had to time our entrance. We waited in front of the pass entrance by heaving-to, planning to enter around 11:30. We noticed a couple of other boats on the horizon and they talked to their friends in the anchorage via VHF who said that anytime was good, because it was wide (1000’) with no obstructions on either side. They both entered ahead of us without incident, so we just followed right along. We had two knots of current going with us with some pretty big standing waves (three feet vs. dead flat) inside the pass, and got squirrelly once or twice, but did fine.

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