Monday, July 14, 2008

Collision of the Currents

We've made landfall in the Tuamotu Archipelago, on Makemo Atoll. We'd had our sites on Tahanea, 60 miles further to the west, so this was an unplanned pitstop, necessitated primarily by the time of day. In days of old the Tuamotus were known as the "Dangerous" Archipelago, as many boats have met the reefs here unceremoniously, including Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki. GPS has helped sailors navigate these waters with a little less trepidation, but serious care is taken, regardless, to enter through an atoll's pass when the sun is up and behind you, to help spot coral heads, and the tide is slack.

We couldn't make Tahanea before sun down so, Makemo it is. Our passage from the Marquesas, a little over 3 days and about 500 nautical miles, was a bit of a drag; the trade winds are fickle, we've found, and weren't in the mood to further us along. So the last 24 hours we motored. On the last day the squalls marched on by, giving the boat a welcomed fresh water bath, but then the clouds hunkered down like they planned to stay awhile, just in time to obscure our coral-spotting visibility on the approach to the atoll.

Sailing in the Pacific Northwest requires pretty active navigation, with close attention to tides and currents. Anyone who has sailed through Deception Pass is well aware. Well, this is a slightly different matter. To give a lay-out, Makemo atoll is roughly rectangular in shape, about 40 miles long and 10 miles wide, at its widest point -- essentially a ring of reef around a calm and crystal clear lagoon. The northern and eastern sides are above sea level (barely) and wooded with palms, in a long row of islets (or motus) -- a long dashed line. The southern side is all reef, some visible but mostly awash. The swell breaks over the reef on the south side of the atoll, serving as a constant feed of sea water into the interior lagoon. So the lagoon is in need of a drain, and the only routes of escape for the extra water is out the passes between islets. Then, of course, there's the tide. So, when the tide is in flood, incoming waters through the pass do battle with the draining lagoon. And, when the tide ebbs, its outgoing current is amplified by the draining lagoon. There are only two navigable passes into the lagoon. The largest of the two sees current of 8 - 9 knots in ebb. That's 3 - 4 knots faster than our engine can go. This, of course, is the reason to enter on slack tide, a narrow window of opportunity.

We arrived on slack tide. As we approached Arikitamiro pass, we watched breaking waves meet a torrent. Evidently slack doesn't mean calm. We saw a fisherman hanging around near the mouth so we motored by him, looking a little worried, and asked for advice. He encouraged us on and happily led the way. As we were buffeted about by eddies and whirlpools we revved up and inched our way along in the face of a strong outgoing current (the drain) that itself was meeting the oncoming ocean swell. At one point our progress was slowed to half a knot of speed! About a third of the way our stomachs dropped in unison as the engine cut out. Air in the line. We turned around, the current spitting us straight out and Ben scrambled to switch the fuel tank. The engine started right up again, then sputtered once more. At this point I was at the helm, muttering "hurry, hurry," as if that helps, but luckily Ben did indeed hurry and, voila, the engine was in good form to finish the job. We turned around, against the current's wishes, and continued on, the fisherman waving us along. Conveniently this pass, unlike many, has markers to point out coral shoals to avoid on the way into the lagoon. Because the coral isn't just along the fringing reef; there are plenty of heads and reefs inside the lagoon to cause our keel misery as well. Anyway, our fisherman (Victor, we came to learn), lead us all the way to the anchorage next to Pouheka, the village the sits on the north side of the pass. We gave him fruit from the Marquesas (really, only coconuts grow here), and then he gave us a fish he'd just caught. As if he hadn't already done enough for us.

Once we got settled we noticed the breaking waves fringed by a halo of spray on the other side of the lagoon, about 5 miles away. Impressive. We got our dinghy inflated (with less cursing than usual) and paid a visit to Pouheka, a village of 300 (the population would double if you included the dogs). We found Victor, who had promised a small buoy to help us float our anchor chain off the coral, and then he drove us (for some reason there are cars here) to his home for a short visit. We met his wife, Marie, his neigbors/brothers and his dogs. Today we return for a father's day barbecue and I'll be bringing some veterinary gear to help treat the mange it appears most of these dogs have.

We don't know how long we'll stay in Makemo, a day or a few. Weather depending. If the wind picks up and the clouds clear, we'll be in good stead to hop to the next atoll on our way.

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