Finding Oeno Atoll

Like a puppet on a string, Aldebaran was tugged north by the lines driving her headsail. We were sailing 75 nautical miles from Pitcairn to Oeno atoll (at 5 knots, this is 15hours, which is a good overnight sail).

At 11am of the next day, we saw it. A scattering of trees lay just above the horizon. In comparison to the conspicuous Pitcairn, which was shaped like a proud wedding cake, this atoll was just a slender pancake.

Our friends from the Swiss sailboat SV Maya (a couple with kids ages 5 and 7) told us: try to stop at Oeno, even if only a few hours. We needed this motivation, because the weather was turning from SE wind (stable high pressure) to N wind (unstable low pressure). We kept fingers crossed that by gaining ground heading north to Oeno, we’d have an OK point of sail to Gambier – which is the first true sheltered anchorage since we left Galapagos – and we wouldn’t get stuck with head winds.

Oeno is an atoll with a coral fringe reef about 2 miles in diameter. Inside this reef is a lagoon, and within the center is a slender teardrop of land, a mile long, but fairly narrow. It is a little island inside the protected waters of the lagoon.

It is very disorienting to approach a fringe reef, which is a submerged hazard. It is visible only by the white water from breaking waves. This is deceptively distant from the land that we see in the horizon. With our nautical charts, depth sounder, and radar, we’re able to safely navigate around the reef to the pass on the northern side.

To figure out the location of the pass (access through the reef) into the lagoon was not straightforward. Here we can thank our friends on the catamaran Pakia Tea (pronounced Teh-ah), a traditional polynesian style sailboat. They are an Austrian family with a 3 year old son who we met in Galapagos. They had spent time downloading Google Earth overlays of all the atolls in eastern Polynesia. It seems unlikely, but the satellite imagery is actually very helpful for us to find safe anchorage; by identifying areas of sand (bright green) instead of rock and reef (shades of blue).

We picked a sandy spot on the Google Earth overlay, noted its Latitude and Longitude, and plugged that location into our Raymarine Navigation display to steer the boat. We discovered a good sandy bottom in 50 feet of water, with appropriate distance from the shallow reef. On the north side of the atoll, the swell is much reduced, as the brunt of the waves in the Southern Hemisphere is coming from the South.

At this point, with anchor down, I finally took a breath and looked at where we were. It was a dreamscape! The cobalt blue of deep water became textured with every shade of cyan and turquoise in the turbulent wavelets of the reef pass. Past that, a band of the softest green-aquamarine butted against the strip of white sand and trees growing on the island. Puffy clouds framed the picture of paradise that lay before us. Now it was time to get in the skiff and see if this atoll was as idyllic as it looked from afar.

Photo: Oeno atoll. Nautical chart on left, Satellite overlay on the right. Our approach is the line in blue and anchorage at the top of the atoll.

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