Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Arriving at a South Pacific Atoll

We planned to arrive at the northern pass (Passe Garue) into the lagoon at Fakarava just after dawn. The trade winds had been so steady that by nightfall we only had 40 miles to go, and we were just going too fast so we put a second reef in the main sail and partially furled the jib. We were still going too fast so we triple reefed the main and deeply furled the jib. We thought about throwing an old tire overboard to drag and to slow us down even more but didn't have an old tire. During the night we followed the Fakarava Chanel (Chenal de Fakarava) and wound our way through the outlying eastern island atolls of Iles Du Roi Georges and Isle Tikei and then the atolls of Arataki, Toau, and Kauehi. At times when passing between two atolls we were no more than five miles off, and after midnight it was a moonless night. While our GPS gave us a precise position, we were not sure how accurate the charts might be as many were done in the last century. We were anxious to get a radar fix and then compare that to the charted position so that we could determine how accurate the charts are. Since the atolls are not more than eight to ten feet above sea level, you must get pretty close to an atoll before you can get a radar return. Eventually we got a fix on both Kauehi and Toau, and the indication was that the charts were very accurate.

Knowing that we relaxed a bit and turned our attention to determining the time to enter the lagoon at Fakarava and to the significant number of squalls all around us. The lagoons are protected waters bounded on their perimeter by a semi-continuous palm tree covered strip of land called a motus. In harmony with the tides, water flows into and out of the lagoons through the few passes where boats can traverse. Depending on weather and tide conditions these passes can have currents up to eight knots, and as that current interacts with wind, ocean currents, and sea swell in the pass, large standing waves, whirlpools, and short breaking seas can occur. Therefore, one tries to traverse the passes at slack water, which is the point where the current changes from ebb to flood or the reverse. The key to this is knowing when the tides are. Unfortunately, of the 78 atolls in the Tuamotus, there are published tides for only 6 atolls, and you guessed it, Fakarava is not one of the six. In fact, of the 3 or 4 atolls we plan to visit, none have published tide tables. All one can do is try to find a published tide for an atoll to the east and one to the west and interpolate. This will usually get you within a couple of hours of the actually time of slack, and you can wait until the sea conditions appear satisfactory and press through. We completed this procedure for Garue Pass and determined slack water to be at 0741. We arrived at the pass very close to this time, but obviously slack had been some time earlier as the current was clearly flooding (current into the lagoon from sea), and we could see the standing waves. We pressed on and conditions were not too bad, but with our only partially functional engine, we were moving very slowly, so we set the sails and took off like a rocket in the 20+ knots of wind. We made our way 12 miles east to a lovely beach just off the town of Rotoava where we anchored in 45 feet. With the white sand, coral heads, dense palm coverage ashore, comfortable 15 knot trade winds, numerous and colorful reef fish, 84 degree water, and even a few black tip sharks, we definitely feel like we are in the South Pacific!

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