Tin Tin's Sailing Calendar

Friday, 5 May 2017

Atolls!

We set off from Nuku Hiva and, having left the dramatic spires and cliffs behind in the night, we had two days of glorious Trade wind sailing with lines of fluffy white clouds, sunshine and blue water, and an 18 knot breeze that bowled us along smoothly at 6.5 knots. However on the last night big black clouds came up and gave us 40 knot squalls and torrential rain. This continued for a whole dark day until just as we arrived at the first atoll a few patches of light blue appeared and lightened our mood.

Deciding where to go is an interesting test of navigation, juggling distances, times, winds and tides. We have three pilot books on board covering the area and they give differing amounts of detail and advice for entering atolls. I had read through all these and shortlisted the places that seemed most suitable. An atoll is an extraordinary ring of coral protecting a central deep lagoon from the pounding of the Pacific surf. Much of the coral ring is covered with coconut palms and other trees, but in between there are breaks where the sea washes through over the coral. The constant pouring of surf over the windward end of the atoll forces water out of the other end where there is usually a pass that can be navigated into the calm of the lagoon. However I found it tricky to know how best to plan this approach.

I'd settled on Fakarava as a first stop as it has a wide easy pass, but one still has to aim to make the transit at slack water because otherwise it's a roaring river flowing in or out and one cannot necessarily keep control. So when is slack water? Various books offer various suggestions, such as one and a half hours after low water, or at the time of the moon's meridian passage. All agree that it actually depends entirely on how big the surf is, pushing water over the reef. The next factor to consider is to arrive with the sun high, so that one can spot the coral heads underwater which are a hazard to navigation, so an evening arrival isn't safe.

Having found the tide times for various atolls and looked at distances and times of arrival I changed our plan and with 24 hours to go we headed to the nearer more northerly atolls of Manihi and Ahé, aiming to arrive at midday. Sure enough, with a bit of motoring when the wind went light, we were there on time, and I was faced with my first entry into an atoll. High tide was at 13.20, so the tide was still flooding in for an hour or two, but as we arrived the pass looked calm past the jetty and little pink church. Beyond I could see white water breaking in rapids as it rushed in through a narrow gap between the coral reefs, but it didn't seem too much to handle.

With centre plate up we passed serenely towards the channel, waved at by several fishing boats in what seemed like a welcome rather than a warning. At the wharf people sat under an old tree and watched us go through. Ahead the white water reminded me of shooting rapids in a canoe. Aim for the V in the waves to stay in the deepest water. We shot through into the lagoon, and as I watched the depth meter it dropped to 2.5 meters - a close thing if the keel was down.

Immediately after the inner reef I swung hard right and then we were in deep water with 20 miles of lagoon stretching into the distance. Channel markers along the edge made it easy to miss the main coral heads and we were soon anchored a mile from the village in deep blue water just off a white coral beach lined with tall Palm tress. Perfect! We had arrived in Manihi atoll, and were the only yacht in the lagoon.

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