Underway to Gambier Islands

The wind was due to pick up. It had been light NE for two days which we enjoyed to the maximum in the dreamy paradise of Oeno Atoll. Now the N wind would strengthen in anticipation of a series of small fronts heading to our latitude. So it was time to go!

We were still at anchor in Oeno when I awoke at 4am with the wind blowing moderately from the NW. This would mean a bumpy and slow “close haul” to Gambier. Oh no!

Luckily, by 8am when we raised anchor it had veered back to the N at 10 knots, and we were delighted to raise the reacher and mainsail and get under way at 4 knots of boat speed, in smooth seas and partly sunny skies. Nice!

Sabrina got inspired and began a culinary extravaganza in the galley. From the chickpeas she had begun soaking the previous day, she made from scratch falafels and humus, shelling each chick pea with Buddha-like patience to ensure smoothness in the humus. She also made pita bread and fresh yogurt. We chopped the gigantic cucumbers from Pitcairn Island, and voila! A delicious falafel feast was had that night.

Along with a glass of sauvignon blanc, motivated by Mr. Payne, we were eating in true style. We felt blessed as Aldebaran sailed smoothly under the starry night, once again stretching her legs, heading straight to our destination. The passage from Oeno Atoll to Gambier Islands is 250 nautical miles, which we could do in two nights usually. However, given the uncertainty of the conditions, we expected to complete this transit in three nights…. at which time we would reach our first truly sheltered anchorage in 30 days… and finally arrive in French Polynesia.

Giant clams in Oeno

“Like smiles in the rocks”, some of the clams had black lips, others bright blue, while some were green or purple. Swimming over the reef, their wavy lines caught our eye – here, there, everywhere! Like standing behind the glass of an ice cream shop, admiring the multitudes of flavors and colors, and not being able to decide where to look…

Underwater life in Oeno

Water so clear feels like you are floating in air!

In just 3 feet of water we found a beautiful array of colorful fish, giant clams, and many varieties of coral. The coral had many passages and tunnels where fish hide. There is a mesmerizing amount of detail by sticking our heads close up and watching the underwater life go by. The only thing getting us out of the water was the pruniness of our fingers 🙂

Further offshore near where Aldebaran was anchored, the reef was in deeper water, more extensive, and the fish were larger; but we really enjoyed the shallows, getting close to the coral to observe all the details.

Bob the Giant Trevally

“Ahh! A shark!” Yelped Sabrina as she was standing in knee deep water when a fin went by cresting the surface only a couple feet away. In the clear, transparent waters, she quickly realized it wasn’t actually a shark. “Holy moly, that is one giant fish!!”

It was a 4-foot long Giant Trevally Jack, incredibly girthy, and incredibly curious. He was doing circles around Sabrina and Michael, who were wading in the shallows.

“He just seems to swim around us in an anti-clockwise fashion,” noticed Michael. “We are in the Southern Hemisphere after all.”

This intriguing fish decided to spend the entire afternoon with us.

“He’s our new pet in Oeno!” said Sabrina, happy as can be.

Both parties completely intrigued by one another. This was by far the most novel thing any of us had seen in awhile! Such unusual behavior for a fish. He acted like a playful dog, hanging out with us wherever we went.

The best was when Captain K was standing in the shallows and the giant fish swam right between his legs. “Waaaaahhh!!” Kristian hollered and tried to untangle himself as they both seemed to splash wildly avoiding one another in the commotion.

We named him Bob. Otherwise known as Big Bob, our first of the South Pacific! 🙂

Oeno Atoll 10 Fun Facts & Observations

1. Fish biomass 1.7 Ton per Ha, equal to that of well protected marine reserves. 2. Lacking sharks, which suggests past illegal fishing
3. Patch reefs in lagoon host up to 10 giant clams per square meter. Predators like groupers and jacks were abundant
4. Currents bring some trash onto the beaches in the form of fishing floats and crates.
5. Bright red hermit crabs love to eat papaya we leave behind. Tropic birds love to eat the hermit crabs that get too close.
6. Hundreds of birds – including a few types of boobies – all nesting on the ground suggesting a lack of invasive species like rats.
7. Pine trees are growing in the island, probably planted by the Pitcairners who use the island as an occasional vacation spot (but apparently haven’t visited in years due to lack of crew to drive the long boats) 8. Waves wrap onto the fringe reef with nice shape.
9. Mosquitos or no-see-ums were non existent!
10. Yes, we are already planning our Eco-lodge in Oeno.

Source of Science Facts #1-3: poster in Pitcairn Island Museum from scientific study conducted in island chain.

Photo: Sabrina taking her first observations of this astounding place.

Dinghy ride to Oeno

We had to keep pinching ourselves: “Is this real?!” As we entered the lagoon, motoring the dinghy 1 mile from Aldebaran to shore, the colors just became more insane.

We had arrived at an iconic South Sea paradise. Coconut palms leaned over the white sand beach which separated the aquamarine crystal clear water from the dense palms & pine trees of the island vegetation that was home to thousands of birds that flew overhead and nested on the ground.

When we arrived it Pitcairn after sailing 3 weeks, with just ocean and sky, it felt like we had entered a parallel universe into a wayward civilization. Now we had just crossed a magic portal and arrived in Oeno, our first atoll of the South Pacific.


Read more about the Pitcairn Islands and our voyage:

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PHOTO: Sabrina, Kristian, Spencer, and Michael on the “Lambordinghy”, getting ready to land in Oeno. Photo upload by satellite.

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.