Nine-foot breaking waves clawed at the reef and mammoth swell surged on either side of the disconcertingly narrow pass through the reef—the only way in or out of the lagoon. My fists were clenched tightly around the helm, and I was trying my best to steer Red Thread along the line we marked on our chartplotter when we arrived at Maupiti. Our rashguards, still damp from a final morning swim, whipped on the lifelines, a distraction in my peripheral vision. The current was accelerating, and a knot of anxiety was tangling my guts. This was our most raucous harbor exit to date by a factor of about 10, and I was happy to step aside for the Captain to take over for this one.
Not far ahead, our pals aboard s/v Sarita were being siphoned from the lagoon, too. Four knots of current. We were both aimed at a tiny coral ring nearly 700 nautical miles northwest…Suwarrow.
Neil and I had enjoyed 91 wakeups in French Polynesia, and it felt like a lifetime since the Gambier Islands had offered our first sweet, sweet taste of French Polynesia, whetting our chops for three magical months that would leave literal and figurative marks on our bodies and hearts. French Polynesia’s landscape is rivaled in beauty only by the loveliness of its people.
With warm local people, a resident squadron of manta rays, and perhaps the best sea vistas in the South Pacific, Maupiti was a picturesque conclusion to our time in the island nation. The people who call Maupiti home are proud. With the exception of Rapa Nui, we’ve visited no other island that bears a crest of its own, the symbol of Maupiti. Many people live their entire lives beneath the cliffs of Mount Teurafaatiu and the shade of hundreds of mango trees. There is a school, a few magasins and guest houses (not a single hotel), the mairie (town hall), an office for Air Tahiti, and a just over a thousand people who seem rather content in their corner of paradise. Maupiti stole our hearts and left us longing to linger. Alas, we needed to sail on…
650 nautical miles to go
The trades were blowing 18 knots from the ESE and whipping white foam off the tops of the waves, creating lathery halo at the base of Maupiti, now astern.
The sun bowed to the west.
A single-reefed mainsail flew behind a poled-out jib. Two-meter seas; a bit of rolling.
Neil on watch until 2:30 am. Me on watch until 7:30 am.
Rinse and repeat.
Glorious, glorious tradewinds.
The days quickly began to melt together, as they always do on a passage. One watch oozed into the next, some delicious with sticky, sweet solitude and others replete with messy seas, annoyance that our new batteries were being taxed more heavily than we’d hoped by running our freezer, and an unexpected breakage…
Thirty hours into our passage, the extension line that runs through the interior of our aluminum and carbon fiber whisker pole snapped, causing the pole to retract abruptly and nearly causing our 125% jib to hourglass!
“We were able to recover, thank God!” Neil wrote in the logbook.
Naturally, this near-catastrophe occurred on his dark watch, though at least this time it was at the beginning of his watch. Bad things aboard have an uncanny knack for happening just as his watch is slated to end, thus requiring his exhausted body to stay awake longer as we sort out the issue as a team.
We hauled the pole down below, but despite Neil’s best efforts to troubleshoot underway, we decided it would be best addressed after we made landfall and the boat was stationary. The pole itself was fine, it just couldn’t extend, which would restrict how much sail area we could carry when we were using it to pole-out the jib.
As we rolled through Day 3 of the passage, seas eased but so too did the winds. In 11 to 13 knots, we were able to maintain full sail, but occasionally a larger wave would roll us, causing the mainsail to flog and sending a shudder through Red Thread’s skeleton. Nonetheless, we kept up good speed trotting toward Suwarrow at 6 knots.
“Oh lumpy day” -Jessie, logbook 28 July 2016
Twenty-four hours later, the seas had amped up, and 2.5-meter waves were tossing us about, each set nipping at the heels of the one prior. We sailed deep downwind with our sails configured wing-on-wing through the night, but since we couldn’t extend the whisker pole to carry as much sail as would have been ideal, we were less steady and not quite as quick as we could have been. We continued beset by lumpy seas throughout the following day and then saw 34 knots of wind and were pelted with rain and frothing seas during a squally, squally night.
By that point, four days into the passage, we had both grown weary. Birds started to appear, a telltale sign that land was near. Unfortunately, it had become clear that we would not make the pass into the atoll by dusk. Only a foolhardy sailor would attempt to enter an unknown atoll in darkness, especially one so remote, so we decided to heave-to around 8 pm and drift toward Suwarrow over night to ensure a safe daytime arrival.
Meanwhile, our mates on the good ship Sarita had made excellent time and were on track to drop their hook that day! In any case, their arrival wasn’t the reason our boat had turned green with envy out on the big blue. No, what we really coveted was the contents of their fridge!
“Saritas caught a tuna today – I’m envious.” –Jessie, logbook 26 July 2016
“Saritas snagged 2 wahoo today in addition to their prior tuna. We have serious fish envy!” –Jessie, logbook 28 July 2016
As Neil was pulling in our handlines on our final night at sea—just before we were to heave-to and decelerate our pace to a drift—our handline went taut most unexpectedly. Delighted, we pulled in a small but exquisite 20.5-inch yellowfin tuna!
Perhaps the fish was a thank you for tolerating King Neptune’s mercurial moods; maybe it was a consolation prize to assuage our jealously about Sarita’s pelagic palooza. We were hungry for our first catch since our passage from Raivavae to Tahiti and grateful for our fine luck.
A coral ring
An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef that surrounds a volcano that has receded into the sea, leaving behind a lagoon that appears deceptively vacant but teeming with underwater life. The reef might be dotted with small, habitable islets, which was the case for Suwarrow. Since we took the less-commonly traveled southerly route through French Polynesia, we skipped the famous Tuomotos altogether; Suwarrow was to be our first atoll! The anticipation was palpable on board, especially after an uncomfortable night of squalls, followed by a rolly night of being hove-to.
We got back underway at 4:15 am. Dawn broke a few hours later with two tiny islands peeking barely above the surface of the sea, and a red-tailed tropic bird pirouetting around Red Thread. We were on the verge of exploring our very first coral ring! Passage perks
Point of departure: Maupiti, French Polynesia – 07/25/16
Point of arrival: Suwarrow, Cook Islands – 07/30/16
Distance traveled: 681 nautical miles
Fastest 24 hours: 163 nautical miles
Slowest 24 hours: 78 nautical miles (technically 21 hours…7 of which we were hove-to)
Total time: 118.5 hours (4 days, 22.5 hours)
Engine roaring: 2.3 hours
Sails soaring: 116.2 hours (98%)
Average speed: 5.75 knots
Jessie’s musings: I accuse King Neptune of being mercurial, but perhaps I am as well! My passage moods were captured amid my scratchings in our logbook. The beginning was anxiety-provoking as we navigated through Maupiti’s “wild” reef pass. My almost romantic feelings were documented mid-passage, “Mellow watch; feeling quite drowsy. I love mornings at sea. I’ll put coffee on shortly and check into the SSB net.” (27 July 2016, 7:15 am). By the end, however, the passage had grated my energy and I was physically spent, “The motion when we hove-to made me want to barf.” (30 July 2016, 4:15 am). The awareness of ebbs and flows of emotions is one of the aspects of passage-making that I love. I’m more mindful at sea and more diligent about documenting and reflecting on my feelings, all of them.
Neil’s reflections: I remember departing through the pass white-knuckled at the helm in the 4-knot ebb out of the lagoon. It seemed no sooner did the ebb let up than we were heaving to and fro like a metronome over sets of waves that were larger than six feet. Once we got out, the wind was such that we were able to carry on for a good, mostly uneventful, sail to Suwarrow. When we arrived, I remember not being able to see the islands until we were 4 nautical miles out and could barely see the tops of the palm trees. It made me think about what those who took the more typical route must have experienced in the Tuamotus and made me excited to get there myself one day…