June 21 – 25, 2013
Before every offshore passage, we go up the mast to check all halyards, rigging, and attachment points, as well as look for anything that might be wrong. A few days before our departure from Ua Pou, I hauled Wil to the top. We’d been hearing a strange clanking sound develop over the past few day hops which seemed to coincide with use of the genaker. Sure enough, the U-shaped base of the block for the genaker halyard (near the top of the mast) was withering away, and about to break off from it’s attachment point on the mast. We didn’t have a replacement block, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t lose any parts when this block broke. So, Wil hauled me to the top to do a temporary fix which included using string to tie the block to the halyard. Since the genaker halyard comes from the top of the mast, through the block, and to the top of the genaker, if the block were to break, only the angle of the halyard would change. At least we were aware of our situation before departing for the Tuamotus.
Usually, prevailing winds are mostly from an east and southeast direction. However, for this passage we were having light winds out of the northeast. Since we were headed southwest, the wind was too much from the stern, and it was difficult to maintain a straight course for Kauehi. We had to head on a more southerly course to keep our speed up. For much of the passage, rather than make the trip longer, we were open for going to whichever atoll we could aim the boat towards. Would we end up in Raroia, Makemo, or Kauehi? Only the wind would tell.
The Tuamotus Archipelago is also known as the Dangerous Archipelago, and for good reason. Numerous vessels have disasterously found many of these low lying atolls by accident. Today’s technology has made navigating around these deadly atolls a lot easier, but it still has to be done with care. Years ago, we’d read Black Wave, a book about a California family who wrecked their 50-foot catamaran on a small atoll in the South Pacific. While the incident took place closer to Tahiti, it’s still proof that close attention must be paid to all atolls. Needless to say, we were a bit nervous about the idea of sailing in similar waters.
With Black Wave in mind, and while I was on watch for our last night before arriving in Kauehi, we had to pass fairly close (within 5 miles) to the tiny atoll of Taiaro. Not only did I turn on the radar to make sure the bit of land was exactly where it was supposed to be according to the chart, but I also searched through the binoculars until I could just barely make out the shape of land. “There you are,” I had said outloud to myself. I was relieved to know that it was there, and we were where we were. That is, until I realized there a squall was closing down on us.
The squall showed up on the radar and was approaching from an easterly direction. In order to avoid the dark clouds, I would need to alter course towards Taiaro Atoll. I could either sail forward and chance sudden strong winds, or I could sail towards the low lying reefs. I chose to turn toward Taiaro, but I slowed our boat speed by reducing sail. Thankfully, the squall moved quickly, and it wasn’t too long before I could alter course back to our original track. Again, I could breathe a sigh of relief.
Wil’s early morning watch ended with having Kauehi appear in our sights. Next, we needed to focus on entering a tidal flowing reef pass. Many of these coral atolls only have one or two entrances into the inner lagoon. Therefore, currents can flow as fast as 5 or 6 knots in these narrow channels when there is a combination of a strong tidal flow and several days of wind blowing over 15 knots. Our arrival needed to be timed for a slack tide, and preferably a slack low, as well as with light winds and small seas. We wanted minimal current, or current flowing in our favor. The whole arrival thing was tough to predict from 4 days away!
As we approached Kauehi, it was near 7 a.m., and we were actually about 6 hours early for the slack low. Therefore, we decided to try the reef entrance during what was supposed be the slack high tide. While Kauehi has a reputation for being a gentle introduction to reef passes, it still needed to be done with care. We could see more waves breaking on one side of the pass than the other, and we could see the swirling eddies of water near the middle. With Wil on the bow, and I at the helm, I throttled forward into the pass. It didn’t take long to notice that the land next to us wasn’t moving past as quickly as it should have. I throttled both engines up to full power. The knot meter read our speed at 7 knots through the water. The Navionics chart on the iPad showed us decreasing speed down to 1.6 knots over the ground. I began to wonder what we were going to do if we started going backwards! [Later, Sueño did go backwards as they tried to enter. They resolved the situation by putting up more sail.]
Fortunately, we made it in without incident, and quickly found our way to the southeast anchorage. The water was clear and gorgeous, and most of all, once the hook went down, we were completely quiet and still without any swell to rock the boat. This was the first anchorage since the Atlantic side of Panama where we were completely protected from ocean swell. Kauehi was going to be a special treat.