Heaving Ocean

The anchorage outside of the pass is so peaceful that we decide to use Monday for trying to fix the outboards to be able to make it into the lagoon under our own power. A little islet with a dozen or so coconut palms lies just to windward and cuts the wind enough for Aluna to float on an almost glassy sea eight meters above a web of coral patches, visible in a dark blue hue through crystal-clear water. Sea turtles pop out their heads here and there and while checking up on the anchor a leg sized shark circles me curiously.

The starboard motor didn’t want to know anything of their normally explosive power, a lack of sparks at the plugs referred my brain with petrol allergies to an electrical problem beyond my willingness to blindly shoot for trouble within the rusty and oily innards of the beast. The port motors broken gas linkage also proved to be too much for a quick patch up repair, but it is otherwise functional and provides some rudimentary power, alas very little to move fully loaded Aluna and quite complicated, since I have to dive down the motor well, take off the outboard’s lid, move the gas lever in there with a wrench up to the desired speed after having engaged the gear, close the lid again before a wave splashes over the exposed motor, then do the same thing again whenever a change of speed is needed. Hope was that the little extra power would be enough to sail a little closer into the wind and make it through the passage the following day.

Towards mid afternoon the tranquil and idyllic atmosphere started to cloud up a bit. Long swells started to roll in from the Northwest and break over the reef maybe a hundred meters away from us. Those same itches of the wide ocean up North were once again coming at us with their gentle fury. They came in series of four or five, then would slow down again for a while. But each one of them seemed just a little bigger and by nightfall it was getting a bit scary. Each time a roller passed underneath Aluna’s bellies and shook her from side to side I counted the time from that moment until I heard the crashing sound of the huge wave breaking over the reef. It was down to five seconds, but then seemed to stay there during most of the night. Looking around from deck onto the scenery, which by now was brilliantly lit by a fat full moon, I could see the surface of the ocean tilt, first towards the strip of atoll to the East of us, then out towards the sea while counting another five seconds until the thunderous crash, white foam and spray being jettisoned high towards the starry sky. Two or three times during the night we were woken up by a violent flip from side to side and we started thinking about weighing anchor and spending the rest of the night tacking up and down the coast. But things would always settle back down to level of relative comfort and hope that the situation was stable enough to let us stay until daylight always managed to grow back on us.

I had just downed the last spoonful of oatmeal, when I looked out towards the sea and saw a wall of water standing over the galley’s companionway and rushing towards us. Seconds later Aluna shook heavily from side to side and I heard pots and pans tumbling off their shelves down there. It was now beyond any doubts and hesitations time to move and washing the dishes could wait for later! The scare made us put up both sails in record time and I started the port outboard just in case. Then I started pulling in the anchor. The weather was a bit squally by now and the wind had shifted to the North over night. This was good for entering the pass but it was partially responsible for the urgency of leaving our once peaceful anchorage. Instead of hanging on our anchor perpendicular to the reef we now had done so parallel, which had brought us another 30 to 40 meters closer to shore and to the point where the rollers started to break. All the pulling, jerking and heaving did not bring the anchor up. It was stuck in the coral and not even motoring over it did anything to relieve the situation. Still the rollers were passing under us lifting Aluna up a couple meters every time they did so. I tried to take advantage of that by wrapping the rode around the cleat at a low point. A cracking in the housing of the anchor rollers when Aluna rose up told me that this might not be such a clever idea and I let the rode slip. The next wall of water coming towards us convinced me that it was time to let that anchor go. I tied a fender to the bundled up rode to be able to try and retrieve it later. It’s not a nice feeling to let your best anchor go but there was no more time to fiddle with things any longer. Under a grey and heavy sky Aluna’s sails started to fill and she was free, soon enough dancing again over the diminishing swells as we moved away from the shoreline.

The Taruia Pass into Tongareva’s vast lagoon lies on its Western shore just one mile North of the main village of Omoka. Since the swells had become a menace the previous evening we had been in regular radio contact with Alex and Taimi, who had come to see us on Monday morning. Even though the wind had backed enough to the North to allow us to sail on an Easterly course enough to sail through the narrow pass, it wasn’t nearly enough to be able to head North of East as would have been necessary to sail the course of the first leg of the main shipping channel we had marked on our charts. I had therefore asked Alex to stand by at the pass with his fishing skiff, which sported a 40hp outboard, strong enough to pull Aluna out of harms way, should we get into a tight situation. Around 11 in the morning we made a practice approach to the pass. A plume of churned up water pointing West from the opening indicated that the water was still rushing out of the lagoon, which it does normally for about seven and a half hours, where after it reverses direction and rushes into the lagoon for another three and a half. According to our observations from the previous day the reversal of the current was supposed to happen around noon, so I gave Alex our estimated arrival at the pass as one o’clock and we went out again for another big tack up and down the coast. At a quarter to one I confirmed over the radio that he was on his way and soon we could see the aluminum skiff appear inside the pass. We now set our course straight for the pass, which is no more than 80 meters wide, on both sides confined by reefs awash with foaming white breaking waves. The swell had been big enough for the biggest waves to break across the entrance, but for a moment the sea was calm and Aluna slid past the danger peacefully and holding our breath we entered the lagoon. With his handheld radio in one hand and the other on the outboards tiller Alex directed us around the coral heads towards the South. We followed him comfortably, leaving the little coconut island to starboard and soon sailing past the picturesque waterfront of Omoka with pastel colored houses and little piers built out of limestone slabs. Soon we were dropping our spare anchor into sky-blue water just off a rusted concrete wharf.

The rest of the day was spent with completing the clearance formalities, as this was our port of entry for the Cook Islands. We filled out immigration forms, health and agricultural inspections were completed, all done in a very friendly and uncomplicated way while the wind was hissing in the rigging and the short steep waves coming across the lagoon lifted and dropped Aluna in a frantic rhythm way too persistent to let us relax. Anchoring so close to a lee shore is torture for the mind of any sailor, always diligently aware of worst-case scenarios. The breakage of an anchor rode would leave probably less then five frantic minutes of time to react before hitting the rocks. But no such horrible thing happened. In fact the next morning we got under way to cross the lagoon towards the anchorage in front of the tiny village of Tetautua, which promised to be peaceful and tranquil. Alas we underestimated the distance we had to sail into the wind, and by two o’clock in the afternoon we had not even covered half the distance. It was clear that we would not arrive at our destination before nightfall, where avoiding the many coral patches all across the lagoon would become impossible. At the same time our return to Omoka became difficult due to the sun getting lower and lower on the Western horizon so that the glare on the water surface made a timely detection of the coral heads impossible as well. Fortunately I had the coordinates of the shipping channel programmed in the GPS, so that we could simply follow those to make it safely back. By four a clock we were once again bumping up and down in front of Omoka’s wharf. The weather had deteriorated by the next day enough to make us stay, but in turn we got to enjoy some activities on land. A marriage was celebrated at the church and we were able to get ourselves invited. The groom in a stiff white suit and the bride in an even stiffer, starch saturated, visibly uncomfortable costume of shiny pastel mauve color entered the small, whitewashed room where relatives were gathered on worn sofas around the four walls. Bright red carpet was laid not only across the floor, but also over two chairs in front of the heavy build reverend and soon the two to be wed were sitting with expressionless faces before him. The reverend in a demonstratively monotonous voice recited all kinds of verses in the native tongue that is closely related to the Maori of New Zealand’s aboriginal people. For the first time we heard the amazing hymns of the Cook Island Christian Church faithful. One of the older women usually starts intoning the first sentence, thereafter the remaining congregation joins in a crescendo of passionate fervor, the men providing sturdy and simple bass lines, while the women, without forcing their vocal cords into the higher pitched registry, certainly do crank up the volume and then branch out into several layers of harmonics and at even more climatic moments force their individual voices apart into clearly dissonant counter tones. Clearly articulated phrases with impeccably coordinated cutoffs are the only forces keeping the sonic volcano from shattering the pearly gates right there and then. Once the ritual of the marriage is completed father of the bride invites everybody over to the hall, where all kinds of tasty food has been put on tables and after a toast or two the munching is proliferating visibly and audibly. People eat with their hands, making the use of forks and spoons seem absolutely ridiculous, dismembering chicken bones, breaking apart cooked bananas and shoving heaps of white rice and potato salad mouthwards while chewing away wildly and loudly. Without wanting we started our stay in this new place just like we had left the old one: partaking in a gastronomical feast of alarming proportions.

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One Response to “Heaving Ocean”

  1. Fabiola Says:

    Hello my dear friends, I have been thinking about you and I wish you the best, hugs from Santa Cruz CA. Fabiola

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