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Makemo, In Reality

July 17, 2011

Current Position:

There is nothing slower than a sailboat on final approach to a much anticipated landfall, even when that boat is making her top speeds in fresh trades.

I knew not to look for Makemo too early. The Marquesas islands can often be seen thirty miles away, Hawaii to as much as one hundred. But DIP RANGE tables say an object 50 feet off the water, like a tall palm tree on a squat atoll, should only be visible to a small sailboat at eleven miles out. Even so, at twenty I looked to the horizon with expectation, and at fifteen, some worry. We were racing the sun. In all these months of cruising, I have taken pains to arrive at new anchorages in daylight. But this one–the trickiest–would not be so. The question was how dark would it be when we arrived and how much would it matter.

Then, at four in the afternoon, dark bumps on the horizon 10.8 miles distant that soon resolved to be islets (motus) topped with clumps of palms, widely separated from dead ahead to four points to port. We raced on as the sun sank. I raised my right arm and commanded the sun like Joshua, and then it set, and still we raced.

I saw that the moon I had counted on would be behind cloud for some time. Then suddenly we fell into the lee of Makemo, which broke the swell, and to my relief the pass was still evident in evening light, pouring out a furious ebb. I motored slowly up to its eastern lip, sounding around for the “visible” shoal, visible no more. I could hear surf and see its white flashes on a pale outline of shore. The depth went from unreadable to one hundred feet, then fifty, then eighteen in moments, and I was anchor-down by just after six o’clock. The wind whistled in the rigging, but Murre held still.

Still, but not secure. Cloud had moved off and a full moon shown on Makemo’s western end. Silhouetted palms shook atop low hillocks, surf boomed, and to leeward–in fact, in every direction except ahead–open ocean. If some anchorages feel safe as houses, this was a cliff side bivouac. But Murre was remarkably, ridiculously still. Anchoring in such a spot carried all the satisfaction of a well turned cheat, and I couldn’t help but giggle. I made a pot of lentils, had a glass of wine, changed into clean, dry clothes (clothes soaked in salt water are always damp and sticky), and was asleep by eight o’clock.

At one in the morning I woke to the growling of chain and saw that a flood tide had begun to pull us into the pass. We had drug and would have to reset. Murre rode strangely, her stern to the pass, but chain flowing under the bow. And it ground incredibly coming up, now and then catching on a coral head such that I had to jockey the boat to free it. At twenty feet it stuck hard and no pulling on my part brought up any more chain. Cranking on the windless only served to pull the bow down on the rise of swell, flexing the bow sprit until I thought the roller would tear out, taking the sprit with it. Leave behind my best heavy anchor and all my chain? I sat on the bow unsure what to do. Then with a snap, it freed. I hauled hard and fast and had the anchor catted in seconds. The whole operation had taken an hour.

I could not risk another try. Slowly, unwillingly I donned salt wet clothes and harness, opened half the jib and Murre and I returned to sea along the same course we had used for our approach. I dozed in thirty minute intervals as Murre sloshed and banged. Each time I went on deck to adjust the vane, I got soaked.

At dawn we were twenty miles off and I put Murre’s head back toward Makemo. Dawn was dirty with low cloud ahead and behind and rain. Wind had increased to twenty knots and waves to eight collapsed frequently. I was depressed. Approaching Makemo now meant breaking all of the cruising guides’ rules to atoll management, not just some.


1. Get a good wind to carry you down and help time arrival for low slack. (First becalmed, now a snorting trade)
2. Plan an approach without rain in the forecast–you need sun to see the uncharted coral heads in the lagoons (There was no rain in the “forecast” but plenty falling from the the sky)
3. All anchorages are wind exposed; most also to fetch–plan accordingly. (Trades to twenty knots)
4. Even in the best weather, put crew on the bow to assist with conning around coral heads. (…) 5. This is serious business folks, and we’re not kidding!

My venture was beginning to look dangerous.

I wrote out my options in the log.
-Cut and run to Tahiti. Miss Tua’s altogether. To do this we’ll have to navigate around two sets of atolls, much at night and in dirty weather. -Find a better outside, lee anchorage and wait improved conditions.
-Tough it out at the ship anchorage just inside pass. Entirely exposed in deep (60 feet) water. May be coral again. Good enough holding? I’m ok with this, but…
-Push to reported “excellent” (fetch protected, sandy bottom) anchorage eight miles in. Can Murre motor against such headwind? Can I see coral patches in such weather?

We arrived at the pass with an hour to low slack. Rain had cleared but a hard wind and low cloud persisted. I poked around for the documented shoal and found its sandy portions to be too close to the pass and exposed to crazy currents. Fine for short periods, but not as a waiting ground. On the west side water was deep and the bottom was all coral but protected. Would work if required.

Standing atop the mast winches, I could see over the atoll and into the lagoon. The water was black, breaking white. Expected. Deeply disappointing. When bravery allies stupidity, break ranks for cowardice. Who said that, I wondered. Was it fitting?

Back at the pass, tide was at stand, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to poke inside and see how the ship basin looked. Could dash back out before the flood if it was a mess; that, or be trapped for six hours. In the pass a steep chop began almost immediately and continued into the anchorage where a ship-yacht sawed back and forth and even its tenders, the size of Murre, bucked and chewed their thick painters. The area recommended for cruisers like Murre was worse–frothing lee shore within half a mile. This was an emergency anchorage only.

Without thinking I pointed Murre toward the “excellent” anchorage eight miles upwind. Just a test. Could we even make way? Slowly we crawled past the ship-yacht. The helicopter on its upper deck was bundled and lashed as if a storm were coming. Below the bridge was a glassed room with blond paneling, a dining hall or boardroom. The doors were closed. Inside stood a pale man in swim trunks talking to a man in a suit. At the stern a man in a white coat leant over a bucket peeling shrimp. Two others carried scuba gear from one part of the ship to the other. None one waved or even looked up. There was no name on the vessel. Murre dunked her bow and threw several gallons of water over her crew in the cockpit. Different worlds passing slowly by.

Out of the anchorage area water depths quickly went deep–80 to 120 feet–and stayed there. Ahead was an obvious coral patch breaking with white water. And just beyond that, a small spot of water turned from deep blue to greeny brown. Slowly we moved around these. Ahead were two more to port, and then far ahead I could see another. This was not what I’d expected: clean, deep water with widely separated reefs. We pounded on making four knots at times, often two. A squall of rain passed through. Wind increased such that the water-top became streaked. For a time visibility was zero, but then, as if by compensation, our speed dropped to one knot. And Murre pounded on. The palms ahead were at first gray silhouette and then they began to take on color and grow in size. There was some sun. Coral reefs became few. As we fell into the lee of the atoll’s arm, the chop lessened. And three hours after entering the lagoon we were anchor down in eighteen feet, sand. Wind whistled in the rigging, but Murre held still. Safe as houses, this one. I napped twice before dark and was in bed by eight.


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