This is one of those places that you think: “Well, if we shipwreck here and the trip is done, it will have been worth it.” It was THAT beautiful.
The dangers weren’t just imaginary: later we learnt from our Tuamotos friends that at least two power boats with copra have been lost to this pass, and they were baffled that we had entered this pass with Aldebaran. We knew it was sketchy but we didn’t realize just how dangerous it was.
(Click here for more Green Coco posts about Haraiki atoll, in Tuamotos, French Polynesia)
Why Haraiki? We are always looking for atolls that are uninhabited yet have navigable passes. We met a couple in their late 50s on a brand-new sailboat that had entered Haraiki and raved about it. While they warned us frankly about the difficulty of the pass, their benchmark for adventure was obviously much higher than I had assumed!
The major problems with entering (and leaving) Haraiki are two-fold: 1) the breaking waves in the pass; and 2) the minefield of coral bommies just inside the very shallow waters. On the plus side, it is a tiny atoll (1nm wide) so the currents are minor.
FIRST ISSUE: BREAKING WAVES
Haraiki’s pass faces due south, and has no protection from other atolls. The constant stream of swells from the southern hemisphere slams head first into this pass. Forget about ever going here during April to October, at the peak of the south swell season. During November to March, the south swell dies off but there are still pulses of swell that could close out the whole pass for days on end.
We arrived in mid March with a dying south swell, SSW 1.2m going to 0.8m @11 sec. From our forecast, we figured we only had 3-4 days before a 2m @15sec SW swell was arriving, and we’d be stuck inside.
SECOND ISSUE: CORAL MINEFIELD
Our friends had entered Haraiki on a monohull, so we figured we’d be ok in our trimaran with shallower draft. The subtle difference: the issue here wasn’t the draft (depth of the water), as much as maneuverability around the pinnacles and coral bommies that sprouted to the surface of the channel (bommies are coral formations that come from deeper water to the surface of the ocean, like apartment buildings in a city of coral).
Turns out our friends on the monohull had an advantage over us: their brand-new 45ft sloop has a bow thruster, which is a little sideways propeller on the bow of the boat. It allows them to spin the boat on a dime, and turn around tight, narrow channels. Meanwhile, our 42ft long 21 ft wide trimaran only has 1 propeller, and turns like a raft in a summer camp; only with lots of persuasion, and without lots of control.
We sailed overnight from Amanu 150nm. That morning there were baby bird blue skies, so we were optimistic. Then, clouds and light squalls began in the afternoon. It was fairly cloudy when we arrived at Haraiki, putting a damper on our hopes. The visibility was not “stellar” as we had hoped; but at least the sun’s angle was ok.
During the past 7 years we’ve anchored next to many surf spots in our search for off-the-beaten path waves. We’ve steered the boat near big crashing waves and navigated through channels with intense standing waves. Regardless of that experience, upon seeing Haraiki’s pass I was very intimidated!
Overhead waves were breaking on either side of the pass. The channel itself was very hard to identify, because it is only 12-15ft deep. Unlike most atoll reef passes where a deep channel of 40-90 ft is carved by the large forces of water currents, Haraiki is a tiny atoll of only 1nm across, so the currents are minimal. The result is that the waves were shifting and breaking irregularly. Disconcertingly, the swells were standing up in the middle of the channel, threatening to break, and wavelets would occasionally cap over in the rough water. We were considering giving up.
From afar in the lumpy seas, we watched the waves on the pass for 25 minutes. Eventually we gained confidence in the timing of the swell and pattern of breaking waves. We planned the approach at a diagonal angle to the pass, starting close to the western side and moving to mid channel.
Then we went for it…
Our hearts were pounding as waves crashed on the reef next to us, and a large swell rose behind us. Would it break on us? Would Aldebaran’s design as a forty-foot surfboard now be tested? I steered to starboard away from the peak of the lump approaching us, and Aldebaran began to surf down the swell, picking up speed from 6 to 8 to 10 knots. The wave was breaking 150ft away, which is just a stone’s throw! Fortunately, where we were, it didn’t get steep and break; the wave rolled under us. We had timed the sets well and entered into the lagoon. What a relief!
But there was no time to relax. We were immediately confronted with the minefield of coral bommies littering the lagoon, which we now had to navigate around.
GRAPHIC OF OUR ENTRANCE INTO HARAIKI:
From the satellite imagery (see top photo of this post) we had an idea that the western side of the channel was probably deeper. Our friends who had entered Haraiki confirmed this is the way they went. Yet, even in perfect visibility and light wind, this channel would be very stressful on a sailboat. The maze-like “channel” hovers around 12ft deep, blanketed by a carpet of stunning coral reefs; this blanket of coral makes it very difficult to evaluate depth from a sailboat, and discern whether that “darker patch” could be a pinnacle of rock sticking straight up.
The cloudy conditions also did not help with the visibility. We were struggling to see more than 1 boat length ahead, even from Sabrina’s vantage point on the bow. On the positive side, the wind was a gentle 6-8kts, which allowed us to crawl along very slowly, while retaining steering control of the boat. The lightly ebbing tide also helped me keep steerage (if the tide were entering, it would push us with more speed toward hazards).
NAVIGATION NOTE: Counter-intuitively, the light breeze we had is much better than no breeze. If the wind is totally calm (close to zero) it creates a mirror-like surface on the water, and it’s nearly impossible to see hazards below. In fact, when we are navigating across unsurveyed lagoons, it is much easier to see coral bommies and underwater hazards when the wind is strong, as the wavelets and color contrast become more evident. Dead calm conditions can spell disaster and the common understanding is that it’s best to stop the boat and wait for the wind to return.
Sabrina was at the bow giving directions while I was at the cockpit steering the boat. We communicated non-stop on the VHF, while Gary and Ethan chimed in from their lookout positions on the amas. I reported every turn of the wheel, every change in throttle. Sabrina reported every hazard the crew saw from deck. We were a well-greased machine; like a basketball player in “the zone”, 100% focused for about ten minutes.
There were several near-misses. A few times, the coral was 1ft deep just 6 feet from the outside edge of the boat. We did our best to keep the main hull, which is 4ft deep, in a deeper area, while the amas, which are only 1/2 ft deep, were not as big a concern for us. Given everything, we are still not exactly sure how we didn’t run into anything!
We were ecstatic and relieved to arrive inside the lagoon, past all the minefield of coral. And mentally exhausted… as shown by Ethan in the picture below…