Friday, August 27, 2010

Passage from Maupiti to Suwarrow

We were thinking about leaving Maupiti on Saturday, August 14th but decided not to after we spoke to Dignity and Sea Mist. Maupiti is a volcanic island in French Polynesia surrounded by a barrier reef with only one navigable pass into its lagoon. On Saturday, the south swell was big, yet both boats, one a Lagoon catamaran and the other a 56 foot Oyster, were determined to leave despite the swell and despite warnings in numerous sailing guidebooks.

Charlie's Charts states:

"Passe Onoiau has a poor reputation because in rough conditions it is hazardous to enter and numerous vessels have come to grief here. Not only is it winding and narrow, but a strong outgoing current also adds to the difficulties in negotiating the channel. With a southerly swell large amounts of water come over the low and poorly defined reef on the southwest side. This water flows out of the pass, resulting in very strong ebb currents and heavy breakers across the entrance; some vessels have been trapped within the lagoon for up to two weeks!"

Shortly after 8:00 am, Dignity reports to us via the VHF radio that they made it through the pass. Helen tells us that she was scared, her husband thought it challenging and her son loved the ride. Shortly thereafter, Jon, the skipper of the 25-plus ton monohull, Sea Mist, says he felt they were a whale plowing through the waves which broke over the bow and into the cockpit.

So we decided to wait a few days for the swell to dissipate. We weren't in a huge hurry except that our three month visa had expired and we had a big box of books to deliver to our friends on Stray Kitty who were waiting for us in Suwarrow, a nature reserve in the Cook Islands just 660 miles away. Besides Maupiti with its warm water, sandy beaches, fresh baguettes and, my favorite, a manta ray fish cleaning station, just a stone's throw away from our boat (Maya will be updating you about our swim with the gentle giants) is a fantastic place to call home.

By Tuesday, the swell had decreased and the winds were predicted to be favorable for the next few days. It was time to hoist our anchor and head out the pass. My heart pounds as we motor towards the break in the waves. Three other boats in the anchorage took their dinghies out to watch us leave.

"Don't give us an exciting show," shouts Jon on Tyee as he waves goodbye.

I see the white foam frothing from the current and the huge breaking waves on either side of the pass, but I can also see the navigable middle.

"It doesn't look that bad," Tim says with hesitancy.

"Stay to port, the water looks smoother over there," I suggest.

The outflowing current takes us fast. We bounce up with the swell and move side-to-side. Minutes after passing the most treacherous part where the breaking waves and the shallow reef are on either side of us, our boat slows down. The current immediately loses its strength and we are now safely out the pass.

"That was a bit anti-climatic," Tim says.

"It was easy," Maya adds with a bit of disappointment.

"That's how it should be," I say smiling.

Less than five miles west from the pass, our fishing line zippppppppps. Tim grabs the fishing pole from its holder; Kai and I furl the jib to slow the boat down, and Maya climbs up on the dinghy davits to spot the fish. Then, I head the boat up and slow her down even more, so that Tim can reel us in a gorgeous green and silver Mahi Mahi, our first catch in almost one month.

As Maupiti disappears in the horizon and nothing but ocean blue surrounds us, I feel excited about moving on, yet sad to leave French Polynesia with its tropical waters, fragrant flowers, fantastic hikes, and delicious French cheeses and baguettes. But what I think I'll really miss, are the kind people we met there. Many of the Polynesians we encountered didn't seem absorbed in the pursuit of things, and were incredibly hospitable and happy to "give from the heart." I think about Lola, a woman we briefly met on the docks in Papeete and she very kindly drove my father to the airport. Then there was the family in Tahiti-iti who gave us fish, and the man in Daniel's Bay who filled our bags with pamplemousses, bananas and limes. They all generously gave without wanting anything in return. I aspire to be that way.

The half moon lights the sky and the pleasant 15 knot southeast breeze keeps us moving at a pace of about 7 knots. It takes me a few days as always to tolerate the lack of sleep on a passage. I have the 10 to 1 am and the 4 to 7 am shift and we have already established our important passage routine: first movie night, then baking day, followed by chocolate day. This rotation makes all four of us look forward to the following day. I'm too tired to watch the movie, episodes of Gilligan's Island - anyone remember that? Kai will sing you the opening song if you'd like.

Our second day, we check in via the SSB radio with the Polynesian Breakfast Net at 8:30 in the morning. We speak with our friends on Victoria who are sailing straight from Bora Bora to Tonga. This morning they're 50 miles from Palmerston, but are not going to stop. There are a number of boats sailing in this area, though as usual, it feels like we're the only ones out here. It's baking day and Kai and Maya make oatmeal cookies. To conserve on propane which we use to heat the oven, we spread the batter over the entire baking sheet and then cut the cookies up afterwards.The pleasant winds continue our third day. We've all been reading a lot during the day. I'm still reading Moby Dick to Maya and on my own, I'm reading Great Expectations and Mr. Pip simultaneously. At night, during my shift, I listen to the audiobook of The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. It's riveting though pretty disturbing.

This third day is chocolate day so I serve the kids hot chocolate and for dessert, we dip bananas in melted chocolate. We even eat a gourmet Mahi Mahi dinner with a special chocolate (no just kidding) orange sauce. Sometimes we do school during passages, but this time, we decided not to. Today the kids created a new game with our Raymarine chart plotter. They pick a place in the world and travel there in various boats, often choosing the fast Gunboat that we visited in Papeete. "I'm exploring China," Maya says as she zooms in and out of Asia on the screen. It's a perfect example of learning without knowing it - Maya and Kai's geography is pretty good these days.

At 7 am on the fourth day, I wake Tim up in the morning. There are dark grey clouds surrounding us and they're about to burst, but it's his turn to take over. He sails us through the rainy squall, while I get my morning nap. In the late afternoon, we watch the epic movie, Australia, and enjoy being mentally taken away to the 1930s with the cowboys and cattle.We arrive in Suwarrow on the fifth day after a wonderful spinnaker sail. James, one of the wardens in the island, told us that it takes work to get here, but once here, we've earned its beauty. It really is a fantastic place. but I'll save that for my next blog entry.

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