Passage to Tuamutos – The Dangerous Islands


Dawn broke finally, a bit overcast. This is the day we are hoisting anchor and sailing to the Tuamutos. We’ve waited for over a week for better weather – it has been truly nasty, nasty down in the Tuamutos. Vinni and I are excited about sailing and experiencing these beautiful but dangerous atolls. But we’re not excited enough to want to try to make a landing in three to four meter waves and 25 knots of wind. We like challenges, but some challenges are more that we need.

Before leaving there were a number of people we needed to say “good-bye” to. We’ve been here on Nuku Hiva for almost eight months and maybe we’ve “taken root” a little bit. Some of the others who have been here all summer have already left for the Tuamutos, but we were waiting for a new generator to arrive and then we got caught by the weather. We dinghied around to several of the other boats to thank them for the good company, wish them fair winds and hope to see you somewhere downwind.

Kevin held a little “cocktail party” last week as a good-by gesture to all of us that have been here and it was a nice evening. We’ve taught Henri, the owner of Snack Venaacki, to play Mexican Train. He’s completely bitten by it and we’re sure he’s already ordered a set via the internet. We played with him and Mischa a few nights before we sailed. Mischa is the 15 year old son of one of the cruisers here and being an enterprising lad he started a baguette delivery service Saturday mornings. Not sure how much money he made each week, but almost all the cruisers were customers and all of us gave at least a dollar for the delivery so he earned some good pocket money.

Yes friends, sitting in your cockpit early Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and having your still warm baguette and chocolate croissants delivered to your boat is exhausting.

Life as a cruiser is sometimes so hard that I don’t know why we do it.

But finally, there was no way to get around it. Sail we must and the past few days we have been busy getting Capri ready for a passage. Filling her with provisions (provisions are hard to get in the Tuamutos), fixing a few small things on the boat, checking all the rigging etc. It has been almost a year since we sailed our last passage, Galapagos to Marquesas, and we need to refresh our memories regarding everything we need to do before setting sail. This passage is only four days so we only made one bucket full of spaghetti sauce and one bucket full of chili con carne. The dinner menu will be either spaghetti or chili. That’s OK.

At 10:30 Vinni looked at me and asked:

“Are we ready to weigh the anchor?”

“Aye, Aye, I replied.” And we took up our chain for the last time here in the Marquesas. I gave a couple of mighty blasts on our foghorn to say a last good-bye to everyone still in the anchorage and Vinni steered us out of the bay and into the sea.

The first couple of hours went slowly. We had good wind but the current was against us and we could only make three to three and a half knots, despite being on full sails. Our log decided to strike, despite my having made sure it was clean before we left. A clump of seagrass must be growing from the bottom of our hull and keeping it form turning. I unscrewed it and it looked clean and when I turned it with my finger it worked fine. I shoved a screwdriver down through the hole in the hull to try to  clean the grass away and when I remounted the log it started working, but died almost immediately. No way I was going to don my diving gear and jump overboard to go under the boat to fix this – it will have to wait until we are in the Tuamutos at anchor – then I’ll go down. After a couple of hours of fighting the current, Capri sailed clear and suddenly we were making six to seven knots on a beam reach and everything was right in the world.

Sunshine, all our sail up, six plus knots, little to no swells and Capri just blasted her way towards the Tuamutos.

What more can a sailor ask for?

Not much and Vinni and I got ready for watch-on-watch sailing. Vinni took the dogwatch the first night, so I hit the seabunk in the middle of the afternoon to get some sleep. Spaghetti for dinner and at sundown we took in a reef and got the mainsail to the 2nd reef as we always do at night. Vinni jumped in the seabunk and the watch was mine. The Southern Cross materialized slowly over the first port spreader as the night darkened. A few billion other stars made their appearance.

I’ve got to say I got a little lump in my throat. We chased the Southern Cross over the night sky for 23 nights when we were on passage from Galapagos to Marquesas. I got quite emotional seeing it there again. Crosby, Still, Nash and Young sang about the Southern Cross and the feelings it awakens when you first see it:

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time,
You understand now why you came this way

It is a moment you never forget – it will forever be etched in your memory. I can tell you, dear reader, that no matter how many times you have seen it, you never get tired of seeing it, nor are you less emotional.

Many are a cruising sailors dreams. One of them is the Southern Cross. This is where fantasies are created.

The night sky is filled with shooting stars; so many that you give up trying to count them. You can wish on a shooting start and perhaps your wish will come true. There are so many tonight that I run out of wishes. What should I wish for anyway? Here I am living out the grand adventure of my life, sailing around the world with my wonderful wife. We have no worries and nothing we need to do. We are complete masters of our fates (except the weather – sigh). We have everything we could possibly want here in our floating home (well, maybe a new outboard motor – the POS we have is giving us nothing but problems). We are living a life that many are envious of.

Nah – we don’t need anything.

Vinni relieves me at the helm and I go below and catch some much needed zzz’s. These are good watches. We have no squalls and as we have reefed the mainsail to the 2nd reef before dark – the person on watch has little to do. Vinni lets me sleep until almost five a.m. (five hours of sleep – what a luxury!). Day breaks a half hour after my watch starts, Vinni is sleeping, I’m watching the sunrise and sipping a cup of hot coffee.

Everything is right in our little world here on the endless sea.

A couple of hours before we weighed anchor in Nuku Hiva, an American boat, Bliss left. We see them on our chartplotter and it is obvious that they are holding the same course as we are – they are also on their way to the Tuamutos – apparently Fakarava. They are about eight nm in front of us and each night we draw closer. In the daytime, they pull a little bit away from us. It is strange to have company. We’re used to there being nothing out here except us. At night, we can see their navigation lights and during the day, we can just see their mast and sails on the horizon. The following four days they will lie there in front of us until the last day when we pass them.


We followed Bliss for 4 days

We left on a Friday and in the m idle of the forenoon watch on Sunday I see dark clouds approaching from the east. During the night, lightning bolts had lit up the sky far away to the east. Now the swells began to rise and the sea became uneasy. All these were sure signs that something nasty was coming our way. I reefed the mainsail down to the third reef, our storm reef. That woke Vinni and she came up to see what was happening.

Suddenly the dark clouds were upon us. Vinni goes below to don her foulies and I turn off the autopilot and take the helm just as all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, we had reefed and the wind was on a beam reach. I see the aerometer show 20 knots, then 25 knots. 26 knots. 27 knots. Then 30 knots. Capri leaps across the swells at seven and half knots. This is fun, but we don’t need to have more fun than this. The rain is pouring down and I’m soaked within a minute.

Are we having fun yet?

Damned right we’re having fun!

Vinni comes up in her foulies and relieves me at the helm and I gratefully get into lee shelter under the sprayhood. An hour later it is all over, the wind drops, the high swells disappear and the sun comes out. I dry out in the sun and we sail onward.


Every cloud has a silver lining – here the rainbow after the massive squall

As I mentioned before, the Tuamutos are also called the “Dangerous Islands”. Now why are they called that? The Tuamutos are a long chain of 78 atolls stretching over 400nm from Tahiti to the Gambier Islands. An atoll is a ring of coral with a lagoon in the middle. Some are small and some are large indeed. Rangoria, for example is over 100nm in circumference. Most of these atolls have only one sailable pass. The tides here are only half to one meter, but since the lagoon are completely enclosed except for the one pass, that means an enormous amount of water has to enter and leave via that narrow pass as the tides flood and ebb every six hours. In many of these passes the current runs up to nine knots. Capri’s engine can’t cope with nine knots. As these currents meet the sea outside and the winds, they can create standing waves up to 4 meters high. In every pass, there will be maelstroms and overfalls. Sailing through the pass requires a good helmsman (woman) and a cool head. Many of the passes are very narrow, down to 20 meters and the maelstroms do their damnedest to toss the boat sideways onto the reef.

You do your best to determine when “slack water” occurs so you have an easier run through, but slack water here is completely unpredictable and you end up taking what you get. Good seamanship gets you through but it is still a bit of a challenge.

Sailing between the atolls also represents a challenge. Even though it is “open sea”, there are still a number of reefs just under the surface. Most of them are charted, but not all. You need to keep an open eye when sailing.

A week before we sailed from Nuku Hiva we got word that a boat we know quite well, Sewing, was lost on a reef here in the Tuamutos. We first met Sewing in the San Blas islands near Panama and later here in the Marquesas. Hugo (Swiss), Sophie (Cape Verde) and their four-year-old daughter (the most adorable little girl we’ve seen in long, long time) and their new born four month old son were aboard. Their boat hit a reef and thankfully, they were all saved, but they lost everything they had. They only got off with their passports and wallets and the clothes they were wearing.

Vinni and I started a collection for them amongst the cruisers. We didn’t collect a lot of money, only a few hundred dollars, but even a little is a lot in their situation. Apparently, Sophie and the children were asleep; Hugo had set the windvane and had the watch. He fell asleep, the wind changed direction and when that happened the windvane, of course, changed the boats course and it sailed directly up on the reef.

As we get closer to Fakarava, doubt makes its unwelcome appearance. We need to reach the pass at slack water, meaning just as the tide changes. At slack water, there should be no current or maelstroms in the pass. If we miss it, there can be up to six knots in the pass. Our calculations say slack water is at 2 p.m. We are just far enough away that we probably won’t make it in time. If we miss it, we either have to run the pass with up to six knots (not something we do lightly or willingly) or sail around outside the pass for six hours waiting to the next slack water. But, six hours later it will be dark.

Not many good options and we decide to call Bliss and see what they are thinking. They are going to a smaller atoll that we can reach at slack water. I ask when that is and they say 11:52. That certainly is an exact figure and we sail after Bliss for Kauenhi.

We reach the pass just before 11:30 and Bliss sails in close to inspect the pass. They decide to go for it and after they get through, they call us and say it looked like three and a half knots outgoing current. Capri engine can manage three and a half knots current but she will need all the hay we can feed her.

I turn Capris bows towards the pass and give her some gas. Things are going just fine up to now. Both to port and starboard we can see maelstroms and there is no way we are going to avoid them all. Capri is thrown from side to side and I give her more gas. Now we are only moving forward at 2.5 knots, despite the engine revving at 2500. Our speed drops slowly as we get further into the pass and as it dips below 2 knots, I rev the engine up to maximum – 3000 revs. She doesn’t have any more power in her and this will have to suffice or we will be a huge bucket of shit. We move steadily forward and fortunately, the pass isn’t that long.

The overheating alarm on the engine goes off and screams at us. We need to drop the revs and soon if we want to avoid burning the engine out. However, lowering the revs here means we won’t have enough power to force the rest of the pass and that is an even deeper bucket of shit (read: get tossed onto the reef).  We grit our teeth and a minute later the current begins to drop and we pick up speed. I immediately lower the revs and a minute later the alarms shuts down.

We’re through and now we will sail the six nm across the lagoon to the small village there. The population of Kauenhi is between 200 and 300. Once there were 53 pearl farms here, then four and now we are told that there is only one. All due to taxes imposed by Tahiti according to the locals. That sounds strange, you’d think there was plenty of demand for pearls out in the world, but perhaps they have gotten competition from Malaysia or China or someplace else. So, we won’t be able to visit a pearl farm here – but there are more pearl farms on Fakarava and we will visit some there.


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