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Vol 2, Iss 8: The Dangerous Archipelago
May 12, 2023 | Punaruku, Makemo atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia | 16°31’6”S 143°49’18”W | Wind: SE 12 kts | Weather: 75° 100% cloud cover and rain
Punaruku, Makemo atoll, Tuamotus, French Polynesia
The sun is barely announcing its presence to port. Finally, after 3 hours of hovering in the pitch black outside the pass entrance to the atoll, we have just enough light to see.
The “guesstimator” tool developed by fellow cruisers using tide charts and recent weather conditions estimates slack tide, the only safe-ish time to go through the pass, was an hour ago. There will likely be current now, but hopefully we can see the markers on the dangerous reefs lurking on either side of the pass.
I head to the bow and tether in, trying to ignore the roar of the waves breaking against the reefs on both sides of us. I’m up here to look out for the 3 red channel markers to port and 2 green to starboard which are supposed to guide us through safe water into the atoll. Thankfully the current is coming from the same direction as the wind so no standing waves await to pummel us as we try for the pass.
Andrés Jacobo is back at the helm, one eye on the surroundings, one on the chart plotter and radar.
‘I see swirling water for the next quarter mile.’ I call back in warning. This pass can have as much as 6 kts of current pushing you out of or into the atoll.
‘Oh yeah, there are almost 3 kts of current against us. I have the engine at full throttle and we’re only making 1.8 kts forward progress,’ he calls back.
My stomach twists in knots for the 5 minutes we’re getting pushed around by the strong current. Just like the feeling of your car tires sliding uncontrolled on ice, Ana Maria’s stern is thrusted side to side before Andrés Jacobo powers through the last of the reefs, relieving us of the current.
Obstacle 1 down, many more to go.
Honestly, I had no idea what an atoll was before we set sail for French Polynesia. I mean, what makes an atoll different from an island?
But then I found a diagram explaining the formation of an atoll in our RCC Pilotage: Pacific Crossing Guide and it all made sense. The helpful diagram is below and described in my non-geologist layman’s terms:
An atoll begins as a seamount. The seamount erupts and creates a volcanic island (like the Marquesas). A reef grows along the entire perimeter of the island (like Tahiti and Bora Bora). Over time, the volcanic island sinks but the reef remains. This circular reef becomes an atoll (like the Tuamotus) with a lagoon in the middle.
Some sides of the atoll are reefs barely awash in the surf, other sides have land formations or ‘motus’ with palm trees. Currents and swell can carve gaps in the atoll. Boats use these gaps or passes to enter the lagoon in the center of the atoll and get protection from ocean swell.
Once we’ve made it through the pass, I climb up the mast to tackle the next obstacle in the atoll: navigating around the thousands of coral heads or “bommies” that climb from the sea bottom 80 feet below and lurk right below the surface of the water.
We’re in Makemo which, like most atolls in the Tuamotus, is uncharted. There is no official map showing us where all the dangers are hiding. In absence of official charts, we’ve spent hours cobbling one together, recording the coordinates of cruiser-reported bommies and bommies visible on satellite images and infrared charts. We have what we think is a safe 48-nautical-mile route to the southeast end of the atoll.
Running into a bommie would total our boat so we’re not content to blindly follow the route. Hence my trip up the mast.
I climb up each of the mast steps originally installed for a man with legs a good 6 inches longer than mine, pulling my safety line along as Andrés Jacobo pulls the slack out of the main halyard attached to me. Finally I reach the spreaders and settle my weight in my bosun’s chair, ready for a couple hours of eyeball navigation.
Everyone said, with the right conditions, it would be easy to spot the bommies. I had my doubts. But yeah, from all the way up here and the sun high and slightly at my back, the minefield lights up. Scattered amongst the dark blue deep water of the lagoon are huge brown splotches, their edges tinged with neon blue.
‘I see a big bommie about a quarter mile to starboard at 1:30,’ I relay to Andrés Jacobo via walkie talkie.
‘Bommie to starboard, yes it’s .3 miles away. We identified it in the satellite images. The next one should be to port, about .7 miles away,’ comes his reply.
For hours, we perform this call and response. ‘Bommie to starboard, a thousand feet at 2 o’clock.’ ‘Roger that. There’s a bommie to port but it’s quite far off the track.’ ‘I can see a bommie straight ahead at maybe .5 miles.’ ‘Yes, I am about to make a course change and I plan to leave that bommie to port.’
All our pre-work and route planning are paying off. It’s such a smooth process, I wonder why I am even up here.
Then I spot a bommie to starboard. Small, but a small bommie can still tear the keel off Ana María. It’s less than 700 ft away and I can’t believe we routed ourselves this close. ‘Is the bommie to starboard at 1:30 on the chart?’
‘Uh, lemme look…..Negative. We do not have a bommie charted.’
‘It definitely exists,’ I call down as I watch us pass it uncomfortably close.
‘Good catch. I’ll mark it down so we know to give it a wider berth when we leave the atoll.’
By the time we’ve reached our anchorage, I’ve spotted 3 bommies close to our route that the satellite images hadn’t picked up. Those 3 close calls definitely merited the 4 uncomfortable hours hoisted up the mast.
We’re snorkeling from Ana María to the coral beach of the motu. Visibility is so fantastic that I’m still 50 feet away when I get my first glimpse. That’s no 3-foot fish.
I motion underwater to Andrés Jacobo, pointing. Clearly he was expecting something different because even through his goggles I see his eyes go wide when he sees it: a SHARK!
‘These are only black tip reef sharks. These are not the great white sharks you went cage diving with in South Africa,’ I try to remind myself to stamp down the panic. Sure enough the shark seems completely uninterested in our presence.
Once at the motu, we discover a ‘shark nursery.’ Dozens of baby sharks about 6 inches long swim in the warm shallow water. They’re almost cute. The troublesome foot-long teenage sharks are a bit too curious for us, swimming straight for our ankles so we give them all their space, not wanting to alert Mama Shark.
Here in Makemo we’ve had one of the most incredible experiences of our lives. At slack-before-flood current at the pass, we went in a dinghy with a neighbor boat through the pass, just outside it. Tying ourselves off to the dinghy, we hopped into the water and let the building flood current push us ever so gently back into the lagoon. They call this ‘drift pass snorkeling.’ If timed right with the current, it is the coolest ‘lazy river’ in the world.
The coral reef extends 30 yards from the motu before the shelf drops straight into the abyss of the pass. We snorkeled along the shelf, watching the thousands of fish, hundreds of sharks, and the shy turtle as they darted in and out of the caves created in the coral. In a strange way, it evokes images of the cliff dwellings of the American Southwest, but with much more hustle and bustle. After an hour of the best snorkeling of my life, the flood current spits us back into the lagoon. Amazing!
Now that we’re at our anchorage, I climb the 25 feet back to the deck, change into a swimsuit, grab my flippers, mask and snorkel, and into the water I go. Miniature versions of the bommies we’ve just avoided are scattered throughout the sandy bottom. They can’t wait to wrap themselves with our anchor chain, eating away at the galvanized links.
I swim around the area where Andrés Jacobo wants to anchor, looking for bommies taller than our keel. At 5’5”, I know if I can touch the coral head with my head touching the surface of the water then it’s too close for comfort for our 4’2” keel.
‘This one over here is 3 feet,’ I yell to Andrés Jacobo on the boat.
‘Okay. It’s outside our swinging room but I’ll mark your spot so we know to watch for that one.’
Confident in my survey, I swim back to the anchor spot, pick the sandiest patch, poke my head up out of the water to instruct Andrés Jacobo to ‘Drop the anchor.’ Eyes back below the surface, I watch our anchor and chain drop into the sand. It takes a minute to settle and Ana María drifts back as Andrés Jacobo lets out 3 to 1 scope.
The anchor is settled on the bottom but it’s not set into the sand. Poking my head back up out of the water, I suggest, ‘Give the engine 10 seconds of reverse idle.’ I watch the effect underwater: the sharp point of our Rocna digs all the way into the sand, burying itself completely. ‘It’s set! I can only see the roll bar of the anchor.’
We’ll put out enough chain to get 7 to 1 scope for the forecasted storm this week, but we don’t want all that chain to wrap around the shallow coral heads. For one, our chain destroys the precious coral. And two, a wrap around the coral could reduce our scope to 1 to 1. With any wind and that little scope, the coral could yank the chain, our bow cleat, and anchor windlass right out of the deck. To prevent this, we tie buoys to the chain. The buoyancy keeps the chain off the coral, but will sink in heavy winds, giving us adequate scope for the coming blow.
Content with the set anchor, the distance from the bommie, and the chain floating high, all we have to do now is wait for this forecasted anti-cyclone to show up.
What do you get when you cross a food desert with a desert island?
Yep, you guessed it: a food desert island…aka the Tuamotus. The motus on the atolls aren’t fertile enough to produce much more than coconuts. So besides fish and maybe some chicken, the only food on the atoll arrives on a supply ship from Tahiti every 3-ish weeks. This means you can only buy frozen meat and very limited amounts and variety of fresh produce. If you come towards the end of the 3-week cycle, good luck finding anything on the shelves but the most basic dry goods. Luckily, we’ve been able to time our visits so we arrive the day or two after the supply ship thus finding it no problem to stock up and eat well.
Someone is shining a flashlight into our port lights.
Oh. No, that’s just lightning. A lot of lightning. A lot of close lightning.
It’s 5 a.m. We made it through the night. It wasn’t that bad. Yesterday’s forecasts showed the wind would peak at 30 kts at about midnight. Turns out, it wasn’t even strong enough to wake me up. I must’ve slept straight through it.
We thought we might leave the atoll today, but the GFS model shows this weird blob of unstable weather just south of us. Both the GFS and Euro models forecast some crazy rain: 27mm or an inch per hour. The color scale doesn’t even go that high. It seems prudent to stay here in case that blob moves north to us. Plus it’s never fun to sail in hurricane-strength rain.
By 7, the wind has started to climb again. We’re seeing 30 kts. Not a big deal as we clearly survived those winds last night. But the direction scares us. With every gust, it seems the wind is clocking more and more to the south, not southeasterly as predicted. We have no wind protection from the south and there is half a mile for the fetch to build from the reef south of us.
By 9, it’s clear that ‘blob’ has found us. Winds are constantly 30 kts, with gusts pushing 40 kts. It’s a comfort knowing I saw the anchor dug all the way into the sand. With each gust, though, we are inching closer to that 3 ft bommie I spotted.
The 40-kt gusts are creating 5-ft standing waves that crash into our bow every 3 seconds. It’s raining so hard we’re worried the scupper drains on the decks won’t be able to keep up with the torrential downpour.
The sheets of rain make it difficult to make out the bommie behind us, but our anchor alarm app indicates we’re 15 feet in front of it. If the anchor pops in one of these gusts, and we drag back at all, our rudder is gonna go BOOM against that bommie.
We pull out our guides and weather references. ‘If forecasts show strange weather, get protection from the south. The strongest winds will come from the south. Every year an average of 3 boats are lost when caught off guard by southerly winds.’
Are we going to be one of this year’s unfortunate 3?
Looking out the port lights, we can see one…or is that two?…of the neighboring boats is dragging anchor. Unfortunately there is nothing we can do to help.
There’s a brief lull in the rain so Andrés Jacobo braves the elements to check on the anchor chain and bow roller. The snubber on the anchor is taut as a tightrope, but with the bommie behind us, we can’t let out more chain. He fixes the chafe guard, checks the decks, and climbs back into the cabin just in time for us to clock our highest wind ever.
That’s 55 mph!
Ana María bucks violently against the wind and the seas it brings.
We seem to hold our breath for the next hour, eyes darting between the conditions outside the port lights and the anchor alarm app.
Finally with great relief, we observe the gusts descend back down to 30 kts and the wind shifts back to the southeast. Each hour gives us more distance from that bommie and more protection from the nasty swell.
By 3 pm, the blob has dissipated, the black clouds have given way to sunny skies, and lagoon water is once again flat and bright blue.
We’ve weathered the storm. Our beloved Rocna anchor held. We’re all okay.
Dangerous passes + dangerous navigation + dangerous anchoring + dangerous winds from the south = Atolls with a well-earned reputation as ‘the dangerous archipelago’
As we leave the atoll, a 40-kt squall catches us completely by surprise, drenching us and nearly ripping our sails, giving us one last kick in the pants before we can escape.
Instead of galloping on the tradewinds, we are hobbling our way towards Tahiti. After 3 weeks weathering the dangers of the atoll, I confess: All three of us are a bit ‘rode hard and put away wet.’
As in many ventures, exploring the Tuamotus is a study in High Risk = High Reward.
In exchange for the dangers, you’re rewarded with a secluded paradise. Except for the storm, the anchorages are the smoothest we’ve ever experienced. It’s more peaceful and stable than being in a marina. The lagoon water is so clear you can see your anchor 50 ft below. We kayaked through water so blue it surely inspired the color of Gatorade’s ‘Glacier Freeze’ to watch the gigantic 15 ft swell from the southern ocean crash against the southwestern reefs. We’ve enjoyed some of the best snorkeling in the world.
High risk? Yes. But definitely high reward.
We’ll spend a couple weeks in Tahiti and Bora Bora doing boat projects, seeking medical help for the stomach bug that keeps pestering me, and hosting Andrés Jacobo’s parents.
Fair winds and following seas,
To see pictures and videos of our adventures in Makemo, visit @CoCaptainsLog on Instagram.
Visit www.CoCaptainsLog.com to read last month’s less stressful logs ‘Meet the Marquesans.’
Track our current position and read the Captain’s Log at https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/AnaMaria/
©️ Katherine González 2023
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