5/24/2012 Raroia Atoll, Tuamotu Islands
We arrived at Raroia Atoll and dropped our anchor in the lagoon just off the village. It was our first reef pass entry and my bits of worry and concern disappeared under Bills piloting. Reef passes like the rapids in BC and Alaska tend to unnerve people. There is generally a great deal of planning and studying of tides and charts, careful checking for adjustments for daylight savings time or lack of and corrections for time zones. The quest is to transit during the slack tide or just after preferably as the tide begins to push against your direction of travel. This way you have your sails and engine power against no or slight current against you. Contrary to common logic you don't want to go with the flow if there is any because it can push you into something whereas having it slightly against you gives you maneuvering power.
For my non boating readers the reason reefs and passes unnerve us is that tidal water has huge force. As the tides change the water changes direction and any place where water is pushed through narrow tracts those forces result in strong currents. Some currents can run much faster than a cruising boat engines can go. So if you're trying to go one way and the water wants to send you another way AND you're in a narrow passage way with rocks, reefs, shorelines, sandbars or bridges nearby one can suddenly discover that land is not your friend -with disastrous results. Needless to say anticipation of these passages can be unnerving. To add to any real threat we have made it our mission to read two kinds of books extensively: cruising guides which point out the dangers of every pass, reef and charted rock and Disaster at Sea stories that depict the worst that nature and human error can produce.
I have a theory that explains the discrepancy between the possibilities for disaster the books warn us of and the reality of actually piloting your boat through said hazards. The disaster at sea books most of us devour focus on the danger and heroics -that sells books. So we fill our minds with worst case scenarios and the best that Mother Nature can possibly throw at us. The cruising guides we rely on are often decades old. The authors compile their own experience onto the older experiences and obviously no author would write a book and not tell you about the possibility for danger that was passed on to them. SO the threat is repeated again and again regardless of the fundemental changes in cruising itself.
A simpler way to say it is that today we have big engines and stronger sails and gear. The boats in use when cruising was coming of age often had no axillary engine at all or relied on a small outboard or later had small diesels that were originally designed to be tractor motors or car engines. We have a 75 horse, fuel injected monster that can push our 32,000 pounds at 8 knots! We have GPS, depth sounders, satellite imaging, chart plotters, extensive tide and weather programs, GRIB files, email and sat phones for current weather, VHF and HF radios and Google Earth. Redundancy in the systems we rely on is the norm rather than the exception. The way we cruise today and the boats we do it in are simply better able to handle what was once much more dangerous. The warnings were posted because boats couldn't power through much current or easily measure depths. All of this combines and the lurking dangers are more easily handled and less likely to be a real difficulty at all.
Now I have to tell you that I wouldn't have come to this theory if I hadn't been forced to. You see since our first pass (which we did by the book with all the pre planning and deciphering) we have never once gone through a pass at the suggested "right" time. We always arrive too early and then look around and decide it doesn't look that bad. Or rather captain Bill looks around and decided it doesn't look too bad. Once or twice we have arrived late whereas Bill takes a look and decides it doesn't look too bad and off we go. The first time or three I was sure he was quite out of his mind and was about to kill us both. Didn't the books say we ~should~ only transit at specific times? But each time we had no problem. Nothing, nada. With all the warnings and caveats read and considered in the end our big 44 foot 32,000 pound boat with our big healthy engine putts right through.
I should say a couple of other things. First a disclaimer: this may not be your experience and if you end up dashed upon the rocks do not blame me. Second and more importantly Bill has in fact done all the homework, checked all the tables, double checked the time zones, overlaid the satellite image knows where the reef lies and the sand bar curves and has talked to half a dozen other captains and HAS A BACK UP PLAN for getting us out. He always has a back up plan. The key is in the ignition in the on position, the anchor is free to drop, the lines are clear to hoist sail and he's decided already if the pass is wide enough to turn around and abort. He is the first to say hey this doesn't look good but in all truth that has never been the case in a pass of any kind. Second I don't just assume that all the possibilities have been considered. I read everything pertinent, talk to the other sailors, ask questions and am not shy about saying...'umm, Bill? You did read about this in Charlie's Charts didn't you?" ...about the giant lurking rock by the third palm tree....if you ignore it you will sail off the edge of the earth and be eaten by dragons....didn't you?
The anxiety of course can notch up when you realize you are not a 20minute call away from the USCG or Vessel Assist and that if you put a 32,000 pound fiberglass boat onto a coral reef the surf will pound you into fiberglass shards before anyone is going to be around to even attempt to drag you off said reef and that sometimes there is simply no dragging. These days the disasters at sea are not caused by hitting reefs while trying an informed considered transit. Mother nature has to take her share of the catastrophes but more disasters are the direct result of a cascade of problems. "A" leads to "B" leads to "C." Or lastly the one we all dread the most: human error and inattention to some detail. It's the way point entered incorrectly or the reef not seen that falls along your rumb line or the cap not tightened or screw that fell out and bounced soundlessly into the abyss. All of which certainly CAN happen while you are making a chosen transit. That is part of the pre planning and the reason there is a Plan B. Always.
Some of the wives especially get truly unnerved. Me I sort of enjoy the excitement. You get all revved up, the adrenalin pumps, you start in and the bow is pulled into the current, breaking water runs along off to starboard, the sound of rushing water intensifies and you hold on tight. You sort of hold your breath and watch as the world rushes by in a weirdly slow way (you are after all still only going well less than ten miles an hour.) The current grabs you, then you let out your breath as you see once again that your boat is up to the task. Your captain is manning the helm calmly, no bug eyes, no screaming, no white knuckles on the wheel. Then before you know it you're across and past and in this case chugging into an astoundingly beautiful South Pacific lagoon. You let out your breath, look around at the palm trees and the white sand and wonder where your swimsuit is and how soon you can slide into the water.
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