Through geological time, that is. The journey from the comparatively young Marquesan Islands to the ancient Tuamoto archipelago took only three days of sailing in variable winds (close reach to close hauled). We kept up a steady 6-7 knots, slowing down to 5.5 knots to time our arrival at Raroia Atoll’s pass for dawn. The sailing required frequent adjustments in weather helm for the Wind Pilot, as the force on the sails doubles in a 15 knot apparent breeze versus 10 knots. One squally night out of three wasn’t so bad, and the stars on the other two made for spectacular night watches. Although it was a tiring three days, we were thankful for wind and the beauty of sailing through gentle seas in lapis colored waters.
As dawn revealed the low-lying land of Raroia Atoll and the narrow pass into the lagoon, it wasn’t only the sleep deprivation of a passage that led us to feel we were in a dream. The reality we knew was the lush, mountainous volcanic isles of the Marquesas. Before us the narrow band of coconut fringing the bleached coral beaches on either side of the pass looked surreal, more postcard than physical reality. Current flew out of the pass, the water leaping and churning, a river within the sea. We waited for the flow to subside, sailing parallel to the beach under jib alone, jybing back and forth while marveling at the scene before us. Our friends aboard two boats with stronger engines arrived an hour after us, and we followed them into the pass once we heard the maximum current was 4 knots. The passage in and out of lagoons is the trickiest part of sailing these waters, and it was with great relief that our speed climbed from 1 knot back to 3 and then 5 as we made it through the narrow choke of flow.
The dreamscape intensified once inside the pass, as the flat water of the lagoon revealed shades of blue from cerulean and turquoise to lapis. We raised sail and set out close hauled on port tack for the anchorage on the far shore, eight nautical miles across the lagoon. Coral reefs and isolated coral heads dot the lagoon, lush habitat for fish, but a navigational hazard for us. The morning sun serves as a spotlight, highlighting the dangerous zones of brown and cerulean and revealing the clear pathway of lapis waters. In prime conditions the helmsperson can spot the coral while steering, but its best to have someone high up with a bird’s eye view of the lagoon. Devon climbed the rat lines he and Mark made in the Marquesas (rope steps attached to the shrouds – wires that stabilize the mast), and Anson used his mast harness to scurry up the mast to the first spreaders.
Flat water sailing in a 10 knot breeze closehauled is what sailors dream about – especially on a boat like Anthea that points without leeway. I was at the helm for the entire crossing, as an inflamed elbow kept me from the job of winching. So it was with minimal guilt that I hogged the helm for one of the most memorable sails of my life. We heeled gently and pointed high, slipping through the water while Anson and Devon sighted shallows. Sailing on port tack in the southern hemisphere meant that every gust of wind was a lift, helping me to eek a few degrees higher to avoid coral. For some reefs we simply fell off five or ten degrees to dodge the shallows, with Mark easing the sails, and then hauling in the main sheet and winching the jib to get us back on course. The tacks to avoid the large patches took more work. Anson had the role of tactitian, and I felt I was in a race as he shouted down from the mast, “Tacking in 10, 9, 8…3, 2, 1!” I pushed the helm over hard, both boys holding fast while Mark built muscle winching in our powerful jib. Short tacking through the coral, with two crew in the rigging, we made it to the anchorage, exhilarated and in awe of this island of water.
We had journeyed through millennia of geological forces in this passage: the coral atolls of the Tuamoto Archipelago had once been as tall and lush as the Marquesan islands we so enjoyed, but erosion and the subsidence caused by the movement of the tectonic plates into deeper waters created the dreamscape before us. Anchored behind coconut palms, we watched the puffy cumulous clouds of the trade winds move unimpeded across the landscape. The sanctuary of the lagoon equaled its beauty: Anthea was as still as at dock, but behind us was an expanse of flat water and ahead turquoise shallows fading to cerulean wavelets lapping a coral beach with coconut palms waving in the breeze. Paradise found. Kim
Now at Makemo Atoll Latitude 16 degrees 38 minutes South; longitude 143 degrees 24.9 minutes West