Makemo to Tahanea

by Glen

French Polynesia, days 20-22, 2-5 May: Boomies and wild passes, the challenges of atoll hopping.
We had arrived from the Marquises to Makemo, our first Tuamotus atoll, on 29-April and spent 2 days anchored next to the local village. First night had been calm but then the wind turned back to its prevailing SE direction with a 5 mile fetch from across the atoll, making the anchorage quite uncomfortable. So it was time to move on again.
The global cruising guide that we often use ( showed a more protected place to anchor inside the northern end of Makemo, where the atoll rim does a twist to the north, giving shelter from the SE winds and choppy waves.

2-May: This then was our first transit inside an atoll. Now, while some atolls are well charted, Makemo is not one of them. Generally, the depths inside the atoll lagoons are ~15-30m. But scattered inside every lagoon are unmarked and uncharted coral heads, known to yachties as “boomies”. These coral formations are like towers on the seabed and many of them come to within 1m of the surface. Some are big, up to 100m across, but others can be as small as 2-3m in diameter. Hitting any of them would make quite a crunch, for both the coral and Cloudy Bay! So, we need to be VERY careful.
With perfect midday sunlight behind us, these boomies are easily seen as lighter patches in the water. But cloudy weather or sun in front of you, they are totally impossible to see, until it’s too late 😢

The solution is to navigate using a satellite image with our real-time GPS position plotted on the image. Yachts cruising here do this using a computer program called OpenCPN. The aerial images clearly show all the boomies allowing us to navigate a safe passage inside the atoll lagoons.
For this, our first foray inside an atoll lagoon, the sky was overcast and the afternoon sun in front of us, making boomies spotting impossible. Hence in the cockpit we had the Raymarine plotter, plus Navionics sonar charts on the iPad, plus the PC with OpenCPN. Oana said the set up looked like a nerve-center!
The first couple of boomies we purposefully passed close to, to check that what we saw on the satellite image was accurately placed. Confirmed: very accurate. The only problem with this technique is clouds on the satellite image, which obviously masked everything that was below both them and their shadows on the water. Solution: we navigated around these “clouds”, to avoid unseen boomies below them.

We soon got into the swing of it and started to feel quite safe. Until that is, we spotted the tiniest yellow dot on the sat-image. At first, we thought it was just dust on the PC screen! But as we passed close to it, it was indeed a dangerous boomie close to the surface and probably only 2m in diameter! This made us nervous again, and proved just how vigilant we must be.
We arrived at the anchorage unscathed, found a sandy patch and we were again in good shelter. And perfect peace. Only one other catamaran anchored but otherwise totally deserted.
We stayed at this anchorage, in turquoise water with a palm back beach in front of us for the next 2 days. Not doing much other than relaxing. Then it was time to move the next atoll, Fakarava, with a halfway stop at Tahanea so that we could do the 110nm passage in 2-day hops rather than an overnight.

4-May: Tahanea atoll was 60nm away, to the SW. First 10nm were inside Makemo to exit via its northern passage, then 50nm SW in the ocean to Tahanea’s only passage on its northern side. The navigational challenge was that we couldn’t get the ideal timing for both passages. So we chose the best time for entry in Tananea’s passage and hoped for the best as we exited Makemo’s passage.
Makemo’s north passage was strongly outflowing as we passed through it. This meant we got “whooshed” out of the lagoon into the ocean at a speed of 9-10kts! It also meant that we sped through the huge standing waves, which Cloud’s bow regularly dipped into, throwing the water back up the deck and even up and over the windscreen, totally flooding the whole deck bow-to-stern, whilst giving us quite a violent ride! Our first dodgy atoll pass experience!
Once outside we were instantly rocking in the ocean swell. But the moderate 20-24kt easterly winds gave us a fast downwind ride, sailing wing-on-wind (boom to port, genoa poled-out to starboard). Midway, we passed Tuanake atol (which is fully enclosed, with no passage) and we sailed close its shoreline to get some relief from the 2m easterly swell.
The drop-off around these atolls is impressive. Even sailing 50m from the atoll’s fringe reef, our depth sounder was unable to “see” the bottom. The chart shows the drop-off with an astonishing 45deg slope straight down to 1200m!

Entering the uninhabited Tahanea atoll, the pass was relatively easy and soon we were again anchored in turquoise water with beach and palms in from of us. Paradise to some, but just another deserted island to others!

5-May: The next day we departed Tahanea and headed for Fakarava. One of the most popular atolls to visit. This passage was 50nm, taking about 6 hours, which allowed us the luxury to time both passes, the Tahanea out pass on a high tide and Fakarava south-pass on the next low tide.

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1 comment

Jim May 23, 2023 - 6:15 pm

Good blog – enjoying the ongoing story!

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