Escape from Haraiki

It was time to leave the jewel of Haraiki — but now we were more intimidated about exiting than we were entering! As they say, ignorance is bliss….

The South swell was calm, less than 1m, so we weren’t worried about the waves at the pass (but a South-West swell was due to arrive the next day, so we couldn’t dilly-dally). We were concerned about the coral minefield. Although the sun was shining and visibility was much better than when we entered the atoll, we didn’t want to take any chances.

Haraiki’s entrance runs for 1/2 mile with depth of 10-15ft deep coral. Pinnacles of coral rise to the surface in random fashion, creating a minefield for a sailboat.


To give ourselves the best chance of exiting without hitting coral, we did a thorough survey with the dinghy. We took it through the entire pass, marking waypoints on the handheld GPS for the route that appeared best, along with notes such as “turn hard right after this spot”.

We transferred all 20 waypoints marking the “best route” across the minefield, from the handheld GPS (the grey device on the table) to the ship’s GPS .



Our first step in our survey was to fly Honey Bee, our Mavic drone. From high in the air we could easily see the coral bommies and find the path of least resistance. We followed with the dinghy marking waypoints throughout the pass.

Doing the first step of our survey with the Honey Bee sped things up as we got a bird’s eye view of the terrain.

This aerial shot looking straight down captures what we were looking for: dark blue water (deeper) indicating the best route to take around the coral bommies. The Crux were the two areas of tight coral pinnacles, evident at the top and bottom of the frame – the tightest corners we had to make.

We had a good grasp on the zone we called “The Crux” (it was challenging due to the tight corners we’d have to navigate around dry coral)  but the area closest to the pass was not so straightforward. The depth was hard to discern from the air or from the dinghy. So we jumped into the water for an underwater snorkeling survey.

The area close to the pass was difficult to evaluate from the air — note all the scattered coral pinnacles toward the center of the frame, which aren’t “dry coral”, but might be less than 6 feet deep, posing a hazard to Aldebaran.

The four of us – Ethan, Gary, Sabrina and I, swam through different sections of the pass entrance and re-grouped to take note of the shallow zones. There were several narrow, underwater coral pinnacles coming to within 4 feet of the surface, which is Aldebaran’s draft, so we had to take note of them and find a better path.

Ethan swimming across a shallow spot of 2-3 feet deep, right in the middle of the pass.


We got a chance to enjoy the gorgeous underwater scenery of Haraiki’s coral one last time… the coral structures were  a source of great beauty and inspiration, but also a source of deep anxiety for navigating our boat!

Farewell black-tips!

Upon returning to Aldebaran, this rain band moved through and blotched out the visibility… so we waited 30 minutes for the skies to clear again. I’m happy they did!

Raising anchor… chain gets easily wrapped around coral bommies in the Tuamotos, so it can be really helpful to have a snorkeler in the water, directing the boat and the crew lifting the anchor. This helps ease strain on the windlass, and makes the process much faster. “Floating the chain” with 2 or 3 buoys also helps keep the chain from snagging on the coral bottom.

Ethan at the bow raising anchor chain with the windlass. Meanwhile, I’m in the water directing the boat to move around the bommies, so as to free the anchor chain that is being lifted.

One last view of the beach in front of our anchorage — spectacular! We used this landmark to evaluate the tides to ensure we would be exiting closer to high tide with as much water under our keel as possible. We were grateful this timing of the tides lined up with good overhead sun direction necessary for visibility.

Navigating through the coral minefield with great conditions. Looks like a walk in the park!

The exit was carefully choreographed: we wanted to leave no room for mistakes!  At the helm, I sloooowly followed the GPS waypoints from our survey, and kept an eye on the depth. Nevertheless, I still need a lot of direction from the crew on where exactly to make the turns around the coral bommies (as you can tell, they are invisible from where I stand near the cockpit!) so Sabrina used the VHF radio to communicate from her lookout at the the bow pulpit.

Note the waves crashing at the pass in disorganized fashion. Even though the South swell was less than 1m, occasional sets still pushed through which could be a serious hazard.  Most navigable passes in Tuamotos have depths of 50-90 feet, and the waves peel very predictably along the reef. However, in Haraiki, the waves break in disorganized fashion because it is only 20-30 feet deep for 300 yards out to sea. So once we got to the edge of the pass, after the minefield, we waited a few minutes to observe, before motoring out.

High Five! We are outside the pass, safe and sound!

One last view of Aldebaran at anchor in Haraiki — a gorgeous spot we may never return to. Unless the conditions are absolutely calm, it is just too dangerous to navigate into. We entered only because we weren’t totally aware of how hazardous it would be. Ignorance then, bliss now!

We were through the pass, back in the open sea… back to safety.  We were now enroute to Makemo, the final destination in our 18 day trip with Gary & Ethan.

Spectacular underwater jewels, Haraiki

“Bizarre,” I thought, as I looked at the corals below me. “The sun is already low in the horizon, hidden behind the clouds. The visibility should be marginal. Yet it is so clear. What is going on?” I wondered, looking around with astounding clarity at the diversity of marine creatures.

(Click here for more Green Coco posts about Haraiki atoll, in Tuamotos, French Polynesia)

The Tuamotos is famous for clear water: “100ft plus visibility” is common outside the lagoons, at least. Yet here in Haraiki it was “next level”; the fish & corals looked like a 3D movie, ‘popping’ in the sheer transparency of the water. Part of the reason for picture perfect water, I realized, was the shallowness of the reef pass (10-20ft) and the small size of the atoll, which meant a lack of sediment.

The next surprise: the white tip reef sharks were remarkably… BOLD. Usually they are quite timid, compared to the somewhat more confident black tips, and especially the crazy-eyed, often fearless gray reef sharks. But here the white tips were swimming right up to us, not veering away as they usually do when we face them. It was unnerving. 

“Errr maybe it’s shark feeding hour, and we should come back tomorrow morning,” I rallied Gary and Ethan back to the dinghy. 

Although the white tips were more relaxed the next day, they were still the most curious sharks I’ve ever encountered. They kept doing loops to check us out – not menacing, just really curious. Watching  from this close was transfixing: their cat-like narrow eyes, and bodies undulating like dancing snakes. 

If the multitudes of sharks ever got boring, you could spend hours looking at the nuanced details of every coral formation in Haraiki’s pass. It was a huge carpet of fervent life. 

The Tuamotos is renown as a rare archipelago in the world whose corals are improving in quality. The lack of human population & fishing pressure, and possibly cooler water temperatures, are some of the reasons why the coral in Tuamotos is in great shape – at least outside the lagoons (in comparison, inside the lagoons there is a widespread degree of mortality in corals, especially near villages; and in the Society Islands, much more so.)

However, in none of the other 10 Tuamoto atolls we’ve visited, I’d never seen coral at this level of peak health (Tahanea and Makemo are next in line). The corals’  colors, shapes, and textures were a true thing of beauty.  The shallow water  created fantastic lighting, and closeness made it feel like we were hovering over an entire city of coral. We floated past sky scrapers of coral and looked down at suburban neighborhoods; their resident fish and organisms flying through the water column like futuristic self-driving vehicles, commuting to work or play.

Black tip sharks

When we were exhausted from being underwater, we explored the motus surrounding the boat, collected shells from the coral-debris beach, and harvested coconuts.

The “land” in the Tuamoto atolls is mostly composed of coral debris which is washed up by the waves and currents. If the coral stopped growing, these islands would disappear.

Well, if we got stuck here, we could surely survive on these huge coconuts!

Despite being amazed by Haraiki’s underwater world, and thoroughly enjoying  the deserted island, a thought still nagged at our brains. We still had to navigate Aldebaran back out of Haraiki, through the minefield of coral and breaking waves in the pass, before the next swell was due to arrive.

We still needed to “escape” this little paradise…

Haraiki’s nearly impossible entrance

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.


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.


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.

Sabrina at the bow with a portable VHF to communicate with Kristian steering the boat in the cockpit. Gary and Ethan kept watch for hazards on each side of the boat.

This photo illustrates the issues of “visibility”. The glare of the sun (left side of frame) makes going into the sun impossible, compared to where the sun is shining onto (right side of frame). Also compare this photo with the lighting in the photo above with Sabrina holding the VHF, which is into the sun — it is much darker and hard to see. Hence, we must always enter new reef passes and navigate inside unsurveyed lagoons with a favorable angle to the sun. Ideally, when the sun is high (10am-2pm is best) and also slightly behind to prevent glare, can we then see the hazardous shallow coral bommies. This ‘timely precision’ is hard to achieve on a sailboat, given the shifts in weather… making this one of the great challenges of navigating in Tuamotos archipelago.


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…

Despite the warnings, Gary was happy to ride the bucking bronco on the bow. He and Ethan are old time surfers and were getting a perverse joy from us surfing Aldebaran down the waves in the reef pass.

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.


What we were saying as we entered Haraiki. This aerial photo was taken with our Honey Bee (mavic drone), which we flew once we were inside and safely anchored.

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.


The carpet of coral just a few feet under the boat. 10 feet of water over sand is one thing; 10 feet of water over hard coral sprouting in spires every which way, is a very different thing!

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!

Aerial view of Haraiki: Aldebaran anchored, sheltered by the motu from the east wind, and a long finger of coral reef sheltered us from the north. The reef pass is seen in the distance. The anchorage is spectacular.

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…

Ethan chilling in a pool of water during our beach exploration shortly after arrival. Unwinding as tiny fish gently pecked at his face like a fancy day spa. Lets just say he needed it after the stress of our arrival!