The morning was disheartening – the wind had veered to the NE, which was more on the nose, slowing down our speed. Our ETA had crept back into the late evening — too dark to enter the reef pass.
Coffee was too acidic for our troubled stomachs, so we drank tea and contemplated what to do — whether to raise bigger sails, and push upwind faster, or keep all our tiny storm sails and potentially spend another night at sea. We were being cautious not to over-canvas and have another sail tear with the fickle weather.
We decided to raise our trusty 110% genoa, a strong mid range sail, and see what happened. Fortunately, the wind shift was temporary. A short-lived rain squall cracked the spell. It cranked the wind back to the NNE at 20 knots, a more favorable direction. The skies cleared, and we were on our way.
Land Ho! The faint string of palm trees outlining the atoll of Hao came up on our starboard.
An hour later, we approached the reef pass, at 3pm. My tide chart said the tide should be high and slack. But, given the strong winds the last few days, I anticipated the lagoon would be filled up with water. That can cause a continuous outbound current. With binoculars I scanned the reef pass and was dismayed. Large standing waves were visible outside the pass. What did this mean?
Either… the outbound current was much stronger than I had estimated.
Or… maybe the waves were larger than normal since the wind was contrary to the current. (See map drawing below)
I hoped the latter option was the case. If so, there was a way in. The sides of the reef pass are always calmer. Perhaps we could skirt the corner of the pass and sneak in while avoiding the worst of the standing waves, which were in the middle.
I steered towards the edge of the pass, near the reef. Thanks to the use of both motor and sails, the boat speed only dropped from 7kt to 4kts against the current, which is slower around the edges of the pass. The depth sounder went from 2000 feet to 50ft to 18ft. I couldn’t get any closer to the reef’s edge.
Looking ahead, the reef pass got too narrow, and we were on trajectory to hit some standing waves. They looked about 3-5 feet tall. Not trivial! These are very much like standing waves in a river which can crest and break with some white water but don’t actually move forward. Nor are they as steep as regular waves breaking on a shore.
“You’re getting close to the waves – and the reef,” Sabrina hollered, watching from deck, holding onto the bimini roof. The coral reef was now just spitting distance from Aldebaran’s starboard ama, so we had no option but veer to port into the standing waves.
I’ve surfed down standing waves in our Lambordinghy (that scary story, with our friend Tory, to be told another time!), and Aldebaran has “surfed” ocean waves; but I had never felt the acceleration on our 9 ton, 42ft boat, that we experienced going down that standing wave in Hao.
The engine groaned as we entered the critical flow of the current, boat speed dropping to 1 knot momentarily; then the standing wave picked us up, the boat dropping in, and the RPMs went into a high pitch as the boat speed hit 11 knots, her bows swerving drunkenly to starboard.
Sabrina was hooting and hanging on. I frantically spun the wheel several turns to port then several turns back, trying to keep her straight. Luckily, the trimaran tracks like a surfboard with three fins — really well — so I had no trouble. In fact, it was exhilarating! If it wasn’t so dangerous I’d do it all over again!
We only went over that one standing wave, then we were in smooth water. Our edge strategy had paid off, and now we were in the calm water of the lagoon. Relief!
We sailed in placid turquoise waters for an hour on a beam reach to the village, the sun shining on this beautiful day, and dropped the hook while heaving-to the sails, never bothering to turn on the engine. I knew the chain would wrap on the rocks and reefs below — usually I drop 3 floats with the chain to keep it off the bottom — but we were too tired.