Heaving-to in the Tuamotus

(Hove-to outside of Raroia Pass, Tuamotus, French Polynesia)

Oceanna is just too fast, unless of course she’s being too slow, but it’s the former that was causing woe today.

As we left behind the mountainous islands of French Polynesia’s Marquesas, we looked forward to making landfall in its drastically different coral atolls of the Tuamotus. In stark contrast to one another – where the Marquesas have elevation and lush vegetation, the Tuamotus have unobstructed horizons and, well, coral.

The Tuamotu archipelago is a group of 78 islands, 76 of which are coral atolls. A coral atoll is evidence of a long ago volcanic island that has, over an unthinkable amount of time, sunk into the ocean floor leaving behind the ring of coral that once flourished on its shores. As the island disappears entirely a lagoon is formed within the reef crown. Small, in fact tiny islands called motus form on the coral reef giving habitable land to these otherwise underwater worlds. The term low-lying couldn’t be more genuinely used when describing these motus as they average only 3 to 4 meters above sea level. Which is exactly the reason the Tuamotus are known as the “Low or Dangerous Archipelago”. Because the motus are so low, and much of the coral circle remains just underwater, unmarked by telltale land, many vessels have met their demise in the Tuamotus.

So not only were we trying to avoid any deadly mishaps with unseeable reefs, we were trying to time our arrival at a particular reef pass, at a particular tide level. You see, not every atoll in the archipelago has an entryway into its interior lagoon, but the first one we were visiting did. The trick is to arrive at the appropriate time on the tide schedule so strong tidal currents and standing waves don’t deter (read: make impossible) your happy passage. Ideally you plan to go through the pass at slack water – the calm time when the tide is changing from coming in, to going out. It is at this time, which happens four times a day, that there isn’t whitewater rapid-like conditions in the pass. Some passes can have up to an 8 knot current and 4-6 foot standing waves.

Unfortunately we didn’t just miss the tide window, we completely botched the light window. We arrived outside the pass at 8:30 pm, about as far away from the coming daylight as humanly possible. And since we were sufficiently scared to navigate the pass in the day time there was no way we (or anyone in their right mind) were going to give it a go in the dark.

After a quick reference to our onboard New Glenans Sailing Manual (a joke hand-me-down book from my old coworker Jeff, which has earned its rightful place on the bookshelf) we set the sails and heaved-to outside the pass for the night. Actually, we disagreed about which was the proper way to set the sails and rudder, spun in a circle a couple of times, figured out the right combination of sail tack and rudder turn (guess who was right? me, cough-cough), then sat innocently bobbing for the remainder of daylight-less hours.

“Heaving-to is the classic method of marking time until the wind and sea moderate sufficiently for you to get back on course.” Or in our case, until the sun rose. With the jib back set against the wind, and the rudders turned in opposition to that – I know it doesn’t make much sense, but the point is that the boat simply sits controlled making little headway. In nine hours we travelled five miles. Away from the reef. Not necessarily the way one wants to spend the night, but when Oceanna wants to run it’s hard to tell her to slow down.

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Sunrise underway.

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Check out the black sheets in the background. Those are the morning squalls Greg was dodging.

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If possible, it’s much more pleasant to go around the black curtains.

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Greg really dialling in the weather fax. Grib files are coming in super clear these days.

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Drinking tea and reading a book. Pretty standard underway tasks.

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