So, coral atolls are shaped like rings with an internal lagoon riddled of rocks and islets.
So far so good, but how do you get inside? In most cases, the coral ring is irregular and here and there there are passages that are in fact called…. passes!!
Passages yes, but they are not necessarily wide and trouble free, actually most are narrow, winding and riddled by underwater rocks (called “bommies”) that no cartographer has taken the burden of documenting (and anyway, coral keeps growing, so it would be a waste of time anyway!!)
An additional problem: due to the tides, the water inside the lagoon goes up and down and the water flow which is needed to change the water leves can only go through the passes!
So water flows according to the tide: if it’s rising, water should go in, if it’s falling it should go out, and when the tide is reversing the flow should stop for a little while.
Just to complicate things a little, waves crashing onto the reef from the sea manage to send additional water inside, and this water must go out from somewhere.
Obviously, this factor is very changeable, depending on weather conditions.
Result is, water keeps going out also during part (or sometimes all) of the expected incoming flow.
Very difficult to predict, and in fact nobody even tries to!
The “pilot books” written with sailors in mind try to give some information: “slack water in this island is one and a half hour after high water”, “in this other it’s 5 hours before the moon’s passage from the meridian” (what?!), “the outgoing current may at times reach 15 knots” and other such like amenities, which generally turn out to be not very reliable!
Result, yesterday at noon I merrily went with the dinghy towards the pass of Makemo to check how the current was, assuming the slack water to be about one hour later as suggested by local fishermen.
I was there on the edge of the pass, trying to understand which way the water was flowing, when all of a sudden I found myself in the middle of the typical standing wavelets of a strong current which was beginning to flow out, carrying me with it!! I put the little 3HP outboard at full revs, the dinghy was planing on the water, and still I was going backwards!
…It looked really bad: next stop, Hawaii islands?…
Slowly, I went near the shore in the hope of finding a counter-current: no such thing actually, but the flow was slightly less strong and I was able to zigzag across the coral in half a meter of water and slowly gain way: “let’s hope there is enough fuel, let’s hope the engine will hold, let’s hope we do not hit the bottom, let’s hope….”.
Well, to cut it short, no Hawaii for this time, but it was a close call!
One hour later, the 4 boats head towards the pass, one after the other: it’s one p.m., the best time according to the fishermen! “Neva” turns the corner… and speeds away along the pass, pushed by the current! When it’s our turn, we find ourselves running at 11 knots with the rocks on both sides, just to be catapulted towards huge standing waves at the sea end of the pass, where the current meets the ocean’s waves; we more or less expected it, so we were well battened-down, but other boats had solid water inside while playing submarine in these rather dangerous waves.
A relatively uneventful night, and here we are in Tahanea where another pass is waiting for us: this time, we switch our own brains on, we listen to no fisherman (also because there is none!), and after having waited half an hour we get the right moment and get in with not too much trouble.
Now, we are anchored in front of a palm-fronded islet.
A ray just jumped out of the water under Baby’s nose.
Water is azure, but really azure.
Paradise, at last!!!