The dangerous archipelago

We got lucky, it could have been worse. This is often said when the danger has passed. When the tension drops, the damage is assessed and it is clear that no one has been injured, except for some scrapes. But the boat is intact, the damages are repairable. Yet in the middle of the storm last night, while we were at anchor and fighting against 55 knots of wind with waves more than two metres, we saw that a boat had lost steerage and at the mercy of the raging sea was drifting towards us. ‘It is heading our way, watch out! Careful! It is going to hit!’ We shout to the other boat, ‘Turn the engine…’ and boom! ‘Nooo! Turn the engine on!’ Boom again! (We later found out his mooring line had wrapped around his propeller – hence no engine). We immediately rush below deck to check if there are any holes and take up all the floorboards. Thankfully there are no leaks, no ingress of water. On the starboard side two stanchions have folded like butter and the gate torn apart. We inspect with the torch and see that the toerail has been bent at the point of impact and the fibreglass hull is damaged enough to expose the foam core just where the hull and toerail meet. This is not a disaster, the boat has withstood the crash. We go to the bow to check on the snubber line tied to the anchor chain in order to absorb the tension, while Valerio continues under motor to steer Milanto into the wind exactly as if we were sailing in open sea in stormy weather. At a certain point we realise that another boat has lost her anchor and is being dragged by the waves towards the shore. ‘She is drifting! She is on the rocks!’ In the next breath we see her breaking against the coral reef, rolled over on her side as the waves continue to beat her against the shore. A catamaran next to us will soon follow the same path: it heels on one edge and begins to plow a path to the shore where it slams into the same place as the other boat. The storm lasted two and a half hours and caused damage other boats that were at anchor. In addition to us, and the two shipwrecked on the shore: Ariel, the Hallberg-Rassy of our friends Paolo and Cecilia, damaged the steel bow roller; Saorsa, another Rassy 53, with the English skipper Pauline, lost her anchor and the chain, but was able to turn on the engine in time and steer into the wind throughout the night.

But how did we find ourselves in a storm like this? Let us start from the beginning. We had returned to the northern part of the inner lagoon of Fakarava, in the Tuamotu archipelago, after exploring the south passage, where we had done drift snorkelling along the reef, swam with sharks, visited a pearl farm and a family company producing coconut oil. We had spent an almost unreal week in a place where before the pandemic would have been filled with dozens of tourists on vacation, but now was deserted – as if time had stopped. Inside the lagoon the water was turquoise, clear and warm and the coral heads protruded from the white sand beds. Wonderful! We felt very lucky – aware of experiencing this unique and unrepeatable moment.

Sunset in Rotoava
Sunset in Rotoava

From the, Guide to Navigation and Tourism in French Polynesia by Patrick Bonnette and Emmanuel Deschamps – still an essential text for navigation in this part of the Pacific – we learn that the first navigators called the Tuamotu islands, ‘the dangerous archipelago’ and that they were discovered by the Spanish in the early 1600s, long before the Society islands. Whaling ships probably frequented this archipelago at that time, but they kept the secret of safer anchorages and good fishing areas.

A glimpse of the south coast of Fakarava
A glimpse of the south coast of Fakarava

But why dangerous? Because it is a group of different atolls surrounded by insidious coral reefs that allow access to the internal lagoon through specific passages which can be dangerous due to the strong currents that form. Today every navigator has very precise and reliable cartographic equipment, but in these islands you cannot rely entirely on GPS. Sometimes it is necessary to winch someone up the mast to lookout for the submerged coral heads that are not always shown on the charts; therefore, it is advisable to navigate the passages during the day. Furthermore, some atolls are so large that the lagoon has its own inland sea with strong winds that generate a long fetch and waves several metres high and with gusts of wind that can be violent and sudden. Because of this, being inside the lagoon can create a false sense of protection.

Our itinerary to the south pass
Our itinerary to the south pass

We had returned to the north because we were expecting a north-west wind and a rainy day. All the weather reports we had available predicted winds not exceeding 15 knots. We expected to have a swell because it would never be perfectly sheltered, but at least we were inside the lagoon! The day before, when we arrived in front of the town, Rotoava, we dropped the anchor and 50 meters of chain – but our minds were never fully at ease because when you are surrounded by an island and an outer reef, you are trapped. If things go wrong it is always better to go into the open sea, or to have a way out to escape. Even the worst storm can be managed in the middle of the sea, the greatest danger is always when you are close to the shore. Forecasts continued to show a moderate disturbance was expected but in the afternoon, while we were in town, we saw the wind change direction to come from the west and in response Milanto turned herself with her stern towards the shore as the swell began to grow. We immediately returned to the boat and checked our anchor, the lines on the bow cleats and the tension of the chain. In under an hour the sky had turned black and heavy rains were carried by the wind which was growing steadily. ‘The wind is already more than 30 knots – check the bow! The sea is growing! Look at the waves!’ The bow by now was constantly being submerged in the water, the anchor chain straining against the boat which was pitching furiously into every breaking wave. In this situation, the best thing to do would have been to lift the anchor and move away from the shore by taking to the sea. But dropping the anchor on a coral bottom can create the possibility of it getting stuck around a coral head and trying to lift it in those waves would tear the chain. Another solution is to throw the whole chain overboard, with a fender at the end, then move away at a safe distance away from the shallows and the shore and return later to recover it.

We considered all these possible options but by now the wind had reached 55 knots and the waves were so high trying to do anything with the anchor would have been too dangerous. The anchor held up well and with Valerio at the helm he managed to keep the bow into the wind, keeping the tension eased on the chain. If it hadn’t been for the boat that collided with us, we would have been completely unharmed. But unfortunately in such a situation anything can happen and we are happy to know that the boat that hit us was saved.

One of the resorts closed for the pandemic
One of the resorts closed for the pandemic

The same thing happened to me years ago – spending a night at a mooring buoy in Croatia with winds of 60-70 knots and the shore close by. I had sworn that I would never repeat this experience. Even on that occasion, the boat next to us broke from its moorings and was catapulted onto the island. Yet here it has happened again, an experience so similar to the one from before. Again, this time we got out. We got lucky. It could have been worse.