Passage to Makemo

Our passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus had similar joys and frustrations as our Pacific crossing. We left Sunday morning, grateful that the journey was going to be on the order of four days and not four weeks, and spent the afternoon on a perfect beam reach in calm seas. We passed Ua Pou, a statuesque island southwest of Nuku Hiva, to port and enjoyed a spectacular array of stars before the moon rose full and bright and filling the night sky with light.

We knew such conditions wouldn't last: as the sun rose, so did the wind. We spent the next 30 hours in 35+ knots of wind and large seas. We had Helios moving at eight knots and had one of our highest mileage days, 162 miles in 24 hours. On our third day out, the wind began to fade, and we passed through a few squalls. By day four, all was peaceful with 10-15 knot winds and calm seas and our slowest 24 hour run yet, 64 miles.

To be fair, we spent five of those 24 hours drifting downwind to time our arrival at Makemo with low tide. The Tuamotus are all low lying coral atolls, impossible to see unless the boat is within about seven miles in daylight. They are notoriously tricky to navigate because to get into any of the atolls, a sailboat has to steer through a narrow pass, a break in the coral reef that surrounds the island. Currents in the pass can reach up to eight knots which can supersede most sailboat's ability to motor (Helios max's out around 6 knots). If one attempts to enter the lagoon at times of maximum current the boat can quickly loose the ability to make progress through the pass, thus loosing steerage and potentially drifting onto a reef...these conditions earned the atoll its nickname, the Dangerous Archipelago, and before the advent of GPS most boats sailed north to avoid the Tuamotus altogether and went straight to the Society Islands. We selected Makemo as our first atoll to visit because it has a wide, well marked pass. We also worked to time our arrival with slack tide or a low current so we could motor safely through.

We approached the pass at 7:15 am, about an hour after high tide when we had calculated slack tide should occur based on the ocean conditions. We unfortunately met a three knot ebbing current about 0.5 nautical miles offshore, much higher than anticipated but still safe to navigate. As the current from within the atoll met the ocean swell, the sea state looked like something from Mars; in 100 square yards, some of the surface appeared to be boiling and bubbling, some had cresting white caps, and some was a dead, glassy, ominous calm as water upwelled from the ocean depths; all of which we had to motor our home safely through without getting tossed on one of the adjacent reefs.

With Dominic at the helm and me on the bow keeping lookout, we motored into the outgoing current and the uncertain waters of the last 0.25 nautical miles offshore. As Helios pushed through the choppy seas and whirlpools that were developing, Dominic could feel the rudder being jerked side to side, the ocean attempting to throw us off course. Helios marched onward through it all. Looking at our instruments we could see Helios's speed over ground start to gradually decrease from 6 knots to 3 knots. Once it was clear the ebb current was only 3 knots, we increased the throttle to 3000 RPM to give Helios more speed and make the final push through the narrowest section of the pass. At this point there was no turning back, with a reef off both our port and starboard beams an emergency U-turn would have been an ill advised maneuver. Fortunately, Helios pressed through the last 50 yards of the pass and before long we watched the speed over ground start to increase as we pulled out of the current. We decreased the throttle back down and exhaled a big sigh of relief after having navigated our first coral atoll pass.

Once inside, we found ourself in the calm lagoon with water so clear we can see the shadow of the boat on the sea floor 40 feet below. The southern hemisphere of the atoll is a partially submerged coral reef that protects us completely from the ocean swell and renders the water so flat that the horizon is disconcertingly crisp. We anchored just west of the pass near the small town on the island. Gone are the dramatic heights of the volcanic mountains, and in their place, an underwater paradise. We have spent our days snorkeling, swimming, and patronizing the local bakery that has not only baguettes, but croissants and pan au chocolate—heaven!

Photo caption: Dominic and I checking out the pass into the atoll from the safety of the shore.