The Dangerous Archipelago
Eight o’clock in the evening and a bright three quarter moon is just rising. Even better, it won’t set till after the sun is up. The tides are coming down towards neaps, getting weaker. Wind and swell have been relatively light for a few days here, even though we had a squally day a hundred miles back.
Leaving Oa Pou
After three days at sea we are approaching the Tuamotu Archipelago, a one thousand mile long barrier of low-lying coral atolls that you either have to pass through or sail around in order to get to Tahiti.
They were often called the Low or the Dangerous Archipelago. The atolls consist of a few small islands and tens of miles of coral reef enclosing a lagoon. Where there are islands you can see the coconut palms a few miles off but the reefs are not visible till you are almost upon them.
In days gone by, most yachts would plan their passage in terms of passing safely through the Tuamotus. The advice was to arrive at a point about 30 nautical miles away at dawn so that you could obtain a ‘multi-celestial body fix’ of your position using a sextant, before passing through the islands in daylight and heaving a sigh of relief.
These days many yachts visit the islands but even with GPS it is still a dodgy business. Not all the islands are accurately charted and some of the charts do not use the same model of latitude and longitude as GPS does (WGS 84). Yachts are lost here every year.
At dawn we are 20NM from our target and at 10am, about one hour before low water slack, we are off the South Pass of Fakarava Atoll. As my brother Tony is fond of saying: “If I didn’t know you better I’d have thought you’d planned it all.”
Fakarava in the distance, atolls joined together by a coral reef
In good conditions the well-marked passes into the lagoons are relatively straightforward. (The unmarked and unsurveyed ones are a different matter.) In bad conditions, with tons of wave-fed water pouring out of the lagoon forming large standing waves it can be very dangerous.
Approaching Fakarava south pass
Conditions are all but perfect. We wait for the last of the out-going tide to slacken to a trickle then Kath pilots us in while I steer us through the pass and around to the anchorage. Like so many places, Caernarfon Bar in Wales or the northern route into Chausey in Britanny, for example, it’s easy peasy in the right conditions and death on a stick in the wrong ones.
Blue lagoon, turquoise water, white sand, coral and coconut palms. This is it ... the South Sea islands of legend.
Post by Franco
From the lagoon looking out