Approaching the Tuamotu Archipelago
Mid afternoon we sighted land where land ought not have been. A tiny smudge appeared on the distant horizon. Taking turns peering intently through the binoculars, we thought we could see the tops of a group of strange trees, like coconut trees with their fronds ripped away - no doubt the result of the hurricane. Either we had found an uncharted atoll, or we were not where we thought we were. Clearly, this was not the best area of the vast Pacific in which to be lost. And when we had begun worrying in earnest the "coconut trees" steamed off over the horizon. We had been seeing the gantry of a large ship, whose hull lay concealed beneath the earth's curvature. At last, then, after having sailed more than 3,500 miles we had sighted our first ship at sea.
We sailed toward the atoll Ahe (Ah'-hey) throughout most of the night, and when my calculations indicated we were within 20 miles of it, we hove to and awaited daylight. Then at first light we resumed sailing ahead. Eventually we sighted land, or rather a long line of coconut trees presumably growing on land. These trees appeared genuine this time, and our ebullience at having found the atoll as calculated was equally so.
The atoll Ahe appears on the horizon as a low line of coconut trees. We are only six miles away.
Zoom out to see where we are.
Dark mammatus formed ominously overhead, and soon lashed out with a ferocious squall. Undaunted, Suka pounded her way gleefully through a flurry of spray, while flying only a deep reefed mainsail and a staysail. The blow proved short-lived, though, and soon diminished to a 20 knot wind steady on the starboard quarter.
We closed the almost featureless coast and paralleled it for several miles, reasonably certain this was Ahe. But it wasn't until several hours later that we verified the fact by coastwise navigating. Eventually we rounded the atoll into its lee and reached the entrance to the lagoon.
We paralleled the featureless coast for several miles, looking for the pass.
Aborted Entry into the Ahe Lagoon
“A powerful in-going tide was sucking the ketch into the lagoon. We barely clawed our way back out.”
Entering the pass of an atoll at slack water is the standard procedure, but because today's low tide was not to occur until well after dark, we decided to try entering. Motoring cautiously into the pass, we soon found the sea bed, and watched it quickly shoal. The water was staggeringly clear in colors of cobalt blues and aquamarines. Mountainous surf thundered onto the reefs to ether side, while the sea bottom began rushing past underneath, meaning that an unexpectedly powerful in-going tide was sucking the ketch into the lagoon. Fearing that Suka might be hurled onto a coral head, I brought her around and gunned the engine. Under full power she managed to counter the inrush of current, if only just. Then by making sail, we barely clawed our way out of the fearful maws of the pass.
Leaving Ahe, and about to set sail for Arutua.
Standing off, awaiting slack water would have been suicidal, as the night was moonless, the unseen reefs numerous, and the seas fraught with strong and unpredictable currents. And our vessel was not equipped with radar. There was nothing for it, then, but to resume our course toward Tahiti. But directly ahead lay 45 miles of open water leading to a gap between two atolls at the western edge of the archipelago. Across this region we continued most of the night, cautiously carrying but little sail.
We had know way of knowing the current's set (direction) or its drift (speed). My computations indicated that, in a worst-case scenario, a set of 190 degrees magnetic and a drift of 3-1/2 knots, added vectorially to our heading and indicated speed of a conservative two knots, would have put us on the reef of Arutua at 2 a.m. Conversely, with a set of 10 degrees and the same aforementioned drift, we would be moving backward at a rate of 1-1/2 knots, only to crash stern-to on the reef of Ahe well before midnight. Sailing in this aptly named "Dangerous Archipelago" at night felt like playing Russian roulette with two chambers loaded.
A Near Miss
“What I had mistaken as our southern horizon was actually an atoll.”
At 3:00 a.m we dropped sail. Then at the first hint of daylight I shot a round of stars, working the occasional hole in the clouds through which a familiar star would present itself briefly. Then belowdecks I reduced the data, only to find that the navigational computer could make no sense of my sextant altitudes. Unaccountably, I had erred somewhere. As I sat trying to account for the discrepancy Jenny called from the cockpit. There, in the ever-revealing morning light, stood land. What I had mistaken as our southern horizon was actually an atoll. We were shocked to think that the 4-knot current could have carried us a mere half a degree farther south, and dashed us headlong into Arutua. The shorelines of the proverbial seven seas are littered with the tangled remains of sat-nav-less vessels, and Suka had nearly joined the ranks. As she was uninsured, I determined to buy a sat-nav at the first opportunity.