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  • Writer's pictureTom

Tuamotus: The First time

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Skyfall entering the Pass at Raroia
Skyfall entering the Pass at Raroia

Everyone remembers their first time. Where, when and, above all, with whom. The excitement and nervous anticipation. The planning, preparations and picking the right moment. Getting the timing right. And, in my case, the relief and deep sleep I enjoyed after the successful experience. For Annick and I, the first time was to be in the Tuamotu Archipelago, also known as the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’.

The name comes from the numerous shallow reefs and strong currents which make them difficult to navigate, especially as the islands (atolls), with nothing taller than palm trees, cannot be seen from a distance.

Raroia, part of the 'Dangerous Archipelego'
Raroia, part of the 'Dangerous Archipelego'

The lagoon (left) is separated from the ocean (right) by a reef with occasional islands and palm trees. In most cases there is only one or two navigable channels through the ring of reefs separating the ocean and the sanctuary of the flat water inside the reef. These channels are called ‘passes’. As the tide raises and lowers the sea level, water must flow into and out of the atolls. Atolls can be many miles in diameter and the volume of water can only ebb or flow through the passes. Consequently the currents are huge, reaching 8-10 knots on the ebb and 5-6 knots on the flood. (Water also enters via waves on the windward side so more water comes out than goes in). A strong current in the opposite direction to the wind creates dangerous standing waves. The safest time to enter is therefore the slack water either around high or low tide. If you know when that is.

There is a calculation method based on when the moon rises and sets. (5 hours after moonrise, 4.5 hours before moonset, 5 hours after moonset, 3 hours before moonrise). There are also tide tables for the major atolls. However local conditions can vary these times significantly and the best solution, having devised an estimate, is to arrive early and inspect the state of the pass from a safe distance.

We also looked hard for a pilot guide to the Tuamotus. We had the Navionics charts ( which turned out to be fairly accurate) but managed to find a book ‘Charlies charts of French Polynesia’ in the Chandlery in Nuku Hiva. The charts are old, hand drawn, but very detailed.

From the Marquesas, the first atolls we came to were the ‘Iles de Desappointement’. Not an encouraging name for a first time experience! We sailed on to Raroia, the atoll where Thor Heyadl landed with his ‘Kon Tiki’ in 1952. The pass to enter the atoll is on the north west side. We had charts and a guesstimated high water slack water time of between 9.00 and 11.00. We arrived around 08.00 to give enough time to ‘survey the scene’. There was already a smaller yacht waiting as we approached. To my surprise, they entered early, around 07.45. Skyfall was larger, with a more powerful engine, so I decided to follow as soon as we arrived at 08.00.

You could see the water breaking on the reef on both sides of the pass. In the pass there were standing waves set up by the easterly and the flood current but, as the wind was only 15 knots, they were less than half a meter (see top photo). As we approached at a tentative 3 knots the flood took over and our speed over ground accelerated to 7 knots. Annick was on the bow looking for uncharted obstacles but the channel was well marked with red and green beacons placed on the closest bommies. The track to the village involved following three bearings to beacons and altering course at the correct time. The current made it a little difficult to guess the course over ground but, in reality, it was over before we knew it. A huge build up, three minutes of excitement and our 'first time' was over. We had experienced our first reef pass.

The skipper had not slept well on the three day passage from the Marquesas. The wind direction was constantly changing with many squalls so constant sail trim had been required. Add to that the stress and anticipation of the reef pass and he was exhausted. Once the anchor was set and the boat put to bed, skipper retired and, within a few minutes was heard snoring loudly.

Skyfall At anchor off the village at Raroia.
Skyfall At anchor off the village at Raroia. Can you hear the skipper snoring below?

However, after a good sleep, we were ready to explore our new surroundings

Tom and Annick walking around the Motu with he village , Raroia
Tom and Annick walking around the Motu with he village , Raroia

The Marquesas - a footnote

Our last post, ‘ 50 shades of green’ was written before we left the Marquesas and did not include our trip to Daniel’s Bay. It turned out to be our favourite place in this island group.

Daniels Bay, Nuku Hiva
Daniels Bay, Nuku Hiva

The anchorage is completely sheltered and there is a long valley extending from it. I do not know what the Garden of Eden looked like but, in my imagination, I would picture the valley behind the bay, laden with all manner of fruit trees and food is in such abundance.

Track ti o the waterfall, Daniels Bay, Nuku Hiva
Track ti o the waterfall, Daniels Bay, Nuku Hiva

Nestling between tall cliffs on both sides and with a ‘river of life’ flowing through it around 20,000 people lived there before the Europeans arrived. Now there is one (extended) family left. There is a great hike to a 350m high waterfall, the family will cook you a meal on your return ($10 each) and you can buy great value fruit including mandarins, passion fruit, star fruit which we had not yet seen in the Marquesas. Strongly recommended.

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