Marquises to Makemo, Tuamotus atolls

by Glen

French Polynesia, days 14-19, 26-April to 2-May:
We set off from the rolly, sticky-hot, and crowded anchorage (yes, we didn’t like it!) in Atuona harbour (Hiva Oa) mid-evening on 26-April, with destination Makemo atoll, 500nm to the SSW.

Under normal weather conditions, this would mean 3 days sailing with beam-on wind and swell, and apparent wind just in front of the beam. Conditions which usually trigger Oana’s seasickness. But today presents a weather-window where the usual SE trade winds are coming directly from the east. Making it broad reach sailing for the whole passage, therefore more comfortable.

The other factor in us leaving right now, at short notice, is there will be a huge 5-6m swell, product of a storm way to the south of French Polynesia. It will arrive to the Tuamotus from the south about the same time we arrive from the north! Close timing indeed, but if we didn’t leave now, we would have to wait at least 5-7 more days for that swell to dissipate.
The magnitude of this swell must be unusual because French metro warns of 6-8m surf breaking on the southern side of the Tuamotus atolls and Society Islands (Tahiti) and they actually put out a ban on all marine traffic whist this condition lasts.

And lastly, in our decision-timing process, we had to judge arrival time to the atoll passage. Each atoll is a huge ring of coral sitting on top of an undersea island surrounded with ocean water depths of several thousand meters. To enter the shallow and protected lagoon inside the atoll there are only 1 or 2 narrow navigable passages (or none for some atolls, making them impossible to get inside). Under normal mid-tide conditions, the flow in and out of these passages can be up to 7kts complete with steep standing waves and violent swirling water. Such conditions can even be viewed on satellite (Google maps) images of these passes. The trick is to transit the passage just a little after high or low tide, at the point where the flow reverses and therefore has little strength. Timing our arrival, 500nm away was a tad tricky. Luckily, we now have a fairly good idea of Cloudy’s average speed in certain conditions. We judge 7.5kts average and determine we need to depart at 20:30, precisely!

So, although we decided to leave on the spur of the moment, this passage took more planning than usual: The right wind and swell was forecast to maximize comfort; the need to arrive before the forecasted extreme storm swell, and also get there at a precise time to safely enter the pass.

We lifted anchor and set off in the pitch dark, precariously motoring through the closely packed yachts in the harbour. Once a few miles away from Hiva Oa island the wind filled in nicely at 12-18kts and to start with we sped along at a very healthy 8.5kts.
The whole 66hour passage was exactly as forecast: east winds anywhere between 7-17kts, with the occasional slow sloppy sailing but mostly stable and fast, plus the occasional squall with rain. Our average was a 7.46kts, so pretty close to our estimate.

On the second day we passed some small rocky islands named “Iles Desapointment”, which we though was rather amusing. There must be a story behind that naming! And on the third day we passed our first Tuamotus atoll, Taenga. Unlike the high islands of the Marquises, which we could see from 35nm away, the highest points on these low atolls are the palm treetops! Most of the coral rim being barely above sea level.

We arrived to the Makemo atoll passage within 15 minutes of the planned time (a minor miracle!). But we found it was already strongly flowing out of the lagoon, against us. We motored in through 1 to 1.5-2m standing waves with water swirling so strongly that I had to hand steer to keep us going in a straight line. At 8kts boat speed we were barely doing 3kts over ground. So there was a 5+kt outflow current.

Once anchored in the calm waters next to Makemo village we realized the problem. Despite being a full 5nm to our south, we could see the huge southerly swell crashing on the atoll’s southern reef, sending plumes of water high in the air. And of course, all this water was coming into the atoll with its only escape path out of the 2 passages. No wonder we experienced strong outflow at a time when flow was predicted to be zero. Lesson learned: there are more than just tides to consider when landing on the best time to transit these passes!

That first night, anchored in 10m of tropical turquoise water, we had FINALLY found a peaceful place. And for the first time in 2 months, we slept like babies. Shear bliss!
The next couple of days we visited the jolly little village a few times. It was even smaller than any island village in the Marquises, which disappointed Oana, whose next yearning after a peaceful night’s sleep was to find civilization! But though it was small, we were quite impressed by the spirit of the people here. As we walked the few streets everyone who we passed greeted us kindly and we noted how they all stopped to chat to each other.

At least twice a day the church would be full, and the singing could be heard right out on the water. On the Sunday we arrived at the colorful church just as locals were all coming out. All very smartly dressed. Men in shirts and ties and women in floral dresses with flowers in their wide brimmed hats.
From the church they all sauntered down to the administrative building near the harbour, where we learned they were going to vote. Today was Election Day and it seemed like there were no fewer than 4 parties to vote for. Made us giggle considering the whole population couldn’t have been more than a few hundred. After voting they gathered around food stalls and continued their chin-wagging. It all felt like one big happy family reunion!

Not so happy for the next couple of days was the anchorage. The wind swung back to its usual SE, with a 8nm fetch across the atoll, making the boat pitch up and down again in waves. Grrrr! One peaceful night was all we were going to get it seemed. Hence we decided to make our first transit inside an atoll, up to the northern corner to seek better shelter (next blog).

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1 comment

Peter Gambin May 22, 2023 - 2:05 am

I’m sorry to hear you’re not enjoying French Polynesia. Hopefully your travels further west will provide a more relaxed time.

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