Cruising: Reef Running in Tahiti

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The author on a calmer day in less stressful conditions

The author on a calmer day in less stressful conditions

My heart still races when I think about that day. Nightmares haunted me for weeks afterward. The roar of big surf pounding on a reef tenses my entire body. My mind still sees the enormous waves next to me, and I imagine our boat broken to pieces on the surf-beaten coral. A lump rises in my throat, and I feel nauseous as I think about the kids and what could have been. I should not have been there, but I was. My bad judgment had nearly cost us the boat, and quite possibly our lives. Here’s what happened.

Two weeks earlier, on the day we were sailing away from French Polynesia aboard Full Monty, our 48ft Privilege catamaran, there had been an unexpected death in the family. Our best option was to return to Tahiti on an emergency immigration visa and have my husband, Wil, fly back to California. As a family of four on a minimal income, we travel on a shoestring budget, so it was out of the question to place the boat in a marina and purchase four airline tickets. The kids and I would, therefore, stay with the boat.

During Wil’s absence, we had no desire to remain anchored near Marina Taina amid the constant boat traffic and noise. So after taking the first week to provision the boat for a second departure from French Polynesia, we sailed for the neighboring island of Moorea, where we spent the week circumnavigating her tropical splendor.

04-Tahiti-Reef

As a diligent sailor, I made frequent checks of the wind and swell reports, both to ensure our safety at anchor and plan ahead for our return to Tahiti. This included two days prior to Wil’s arrival, when we were anchored near Baie d’Opunohu in northern Moorea. At the time there was a 9ft swell with a period at 17 seconds from the southwest, due to subside the following day. Waiting one day to sail to Tahiti was, therefore, the better choice, especially as there would still be enough time to check in with our agent prior to Wil’s return.

A single e-mail changed that plan. Our agent requested my presence “today” to complete the necessary clearance forms. I replied that we were still in Moorea, but would sail over immediately, estimating we would arrive at her office by early afternoon.

As we prepped for the 20-mile hop back to Tahiti, my biggest concern was how high the forecast swell could become before it made it unsafe to enter the pass at Ta’apuna, given the fact that the opening to the pass faces west. I thought 10ft might be the recommended cutoff for pass entry, but was not sure. A search through our guide books brought no answer to my question. The mountainous island blocked all VHF contact with anyone that I knew. A quick internet search also came up empty.

Still, in Moorea, I considered we could either attempt Passe de Ta’apuna or sail instead to Passe de Papeete to the north. Many boats use the pass at Papeete when the swell is wrong for Ta’apuna, but it would take a couple of hours longer to get there. I was also not familiar with the busy harbor at Papeete, and you need authorization from the harbormaster to pass in front of the airport runway. Because the 9ft swell struck me as being borderline, my decision was a difficult one. In the end, I decided we would sail for Passe de Ta’apuna and assess the situation once we got there. If Ta’apuna looked impassable, we would sail around to Papeete. No problem.

The passage across Chenal de Moorea was absolute in its beauty. The pointed pinnacles of Moorea lay astern, and the mountains of Tahiti towered up ahead. The sun shone on a gentle rolling swell that was barely noticeable as it moved across the water’s surface. All was calm, and I was optimistic all would also be OK at Passe de Ta’apuna.

The first indication that all might not be well came as we approached the pass and the sound of waves crashing on the reef become apparent. Drawing closer still, the scale of the waves became even more obvious, as their roar became all the more intense. Nonetheless, although the breaking surf was big, when viewed from offshore and behind, the waves did not appear any larger than we had seen before.

From our anchorage on Tahiti, we watch another spectacular sunset over Moorea

From our anchorage on Tahiti, we watch another spectacular sunset over Moorea

Finally, just before noon, we were able to peer directly into Passe de Ta’apuna itself. The water was swirly with strong current, but I had helmed through swirly before. Compared to previous trips through the pass, Ta’apuna looked narrower than it had in the past because of the breaking waves that lined either side. However, the channel was still open all the way through.

The choice was agonizingly difficult. I tried to imagine what Wil would think. Would he choose to enter Ta’apuna? Or would he say that we needed to go around? Many times when the two of us are together we will push limits and go where others will not. At the same time, we do what we can to keep ourselves safe, especially now that we have children onboard. Still, the pass looked doable. I made up my mind and throttled forward. We were going in.

Alas, mere moments later, I realized I’d just made a serious mistake, and worse yet, that there no turning back. Instantly, the powerful waves began sucking us toward the reef, despite our not even being in the “swirly” part yet. It was impossible to hold the boat straight. With the helm positioned aft on the starboard side of our catamaran, I needed my 12-year-old son, Colin, to stand watch on the other side of the cockpit and let me know how close the reef was.

Colin later said it felt as though he was seeing a baby Teahupo’o, Tahiti’s popular big-wave surfing spot, as he looked up at the enormous waves from his vantage point. He said he’d also noticed someone sitting in a small aluminum boat wearing a life jacket and keeping a watchful eye on the body boarders in the area. When do you ever see a Polynesian wearing a life jacket!

At this point, my always cool and collected 14-year-old, Justine, came out into the cockpit. Her eyes widened, and she very calmly grabbed hold of the cockpit table and braced herself. Quietly in her mind, she later recalled repeatedly saying, “Oh God, oh God, oh God...”

There was now at least a 6- to 7-knot current against us. Although our boat can easily do 8 to 9 knots at full throttle, our speed-over-ground was now barely a knot and a half. Both 50hp engines were giving it everything they had. Meanwhile, the water’s power kept trying to wrench the helm from my grip, so that I could barely hold on, forcing me to press my entire body up against the wheel to keep it from moving the wrong way. Even then, the boat did not want to motor in the direction of her bows.

While all this was going on, I saw a person paddling a board out with the current. In my mind, I begged for him to stay out of our way. There was no way I would be able to avoid him if he got too close. I remember seeing the unsure expression on his face, his eyes wide.

My mind was racing. My body was shaking. I could not believe this was happening. My mind changed. This was not happening! This would not happen! I would not lose our boat, our home, our everything. It would not end this way. I would not quit. I would not give up. I fought with every ounce of determination and strength I had.

Gradually, the current eased, and the boat responded to my commands. We passed the last set of buoys and finally arrived in calmer water. I took my shaking hands off the helm and burst into tears.

There was no time, though, to dwell on what had just happened. We needed to focus on the next task at hand, which was dropping the hook in the deep and crowded anchorage. Luckily, Colin and I managed to set the anchor in a good spot after only two tries.

Full Monty’s powerful engines saved the day

Full Monty’s powerful engines saved the day

Once the anchor was down, getting to shore was the next challenge. With the swell rocking and rolling the anchorage more than normal, it took all three of us to safely lower the dinghy without it swinging wildly out of control. Climbing inside and unhooking the davit lines required equally careful timing. The kids remained onboard to keep an eye on the situation, as they are both well capable of handling a dragging anchor scenario.

Approaching the dinghy dock, it was apparent that landing would be difficult as well. With the constant motion, every section of the floating dock was simultaneously being jerked in all possible directions with the swell. It appeared as if it could break apart at any moment, and all the dinghies and their engines were banging into both the dock and each other. Not a good place to land, but there was no alternative.

And the scene did not end there. Waves were now splashing over the outermost wharf, pushing boats dangerously close to the concrete. Water was also pushing up through the dock boards at the inside dinghy docks. Boats were rocking and rolling inside Marina Taina. Mini-geysers were spraying out of parking lot drains with the push of each wave into the shore.

I was still shaking when I reached the Tahiti Crew office. Our agent cheerfully walked up just seconds after my arrival and asked how I was doing. When my response was, “Not good,” she stopped, looked at me and asked why.

“I just came through that pass,” I said pointing a shaky finger in the direction of Ta’apuna. It took a moment before she realized which pass I was referring to. “That pass?” she exclaimed. “No one is going through that pass today! Everyone is going around.”

I did not need to provide any details. She immediately understood and proceeded to tell me that whatever highest yachtmaster certificate exists, I had just earned it. Then, after sitting me down, she handed me a cookie.

The moral of this story is never be in a hurry, no matter the situation. When we hear of a boat damaged in a storm or on a reef, often it’s because the skipper chose not to wait due to time or money. Always wait for daylight before coming too close to land or entering an unfamiliar channel. Always wait for an appropriate weather window. Wait for appropriate lighting when navigating among coral heads or near reefs. Never hesitate to turn around or change direction if Mother Nature dictates it.

A sailor who has not made a stupid mistake is rare. If they say they have not, they are either lying, have not been out there long enough or are extremely lucky. Fortunately, most of us learn from these mistakes and come out relatively unharmed, with the boat mostly intact.

On this day, I made my biggest mistake. I did something I have always preached against. I let time rule my decision, and I chose the shortcut. Whether it was skill or luck that helped us through (or maybe a guardian angel), I am forever thankful that we still have our boat and our lives.

After describing the appearance of Passe de Ta’apuna that day to Wil, I asked him what he thought he would have done. Wil believes he would have chosen to go through the pass too. 

The waves at the pass on a calm day; they were much bigger on the day of the near-disaster

The waves at the pass on a calm day; they were much bigger on the day of the near-disaster

The Science of the Waves

Common sense should have spoken louder than desire, and I should have recognized the magnitude of the swell. After recovering from the incident, I decided to explore the science behind my harrowing reef entry, as well as find some proof of just how big the surf was that day.

Science can define the resulting wave height when a 17-second, 10ft ground swell rises from the depths and meets a shallow reef. As a swell of this nature travels across the ocean, it sustains more energy than short-period swells, and the bulk of this energy is found deep below the surface, extending hundreds of feet to the ocean floor.

Based on a simple formula using swell period, the swell that traveled to Tahiti that day began to feel the bottom of Chenal de Moorea at a 740ft depth approximately a quarter mile from the reef at Ta’apuna. During this last quarter-mile, the water depth rapidly decreases to 9ft immediately next to where the reef reaches the surface. In general, a wave’s breaking height is 1.3 times the height of the swell. However, longer-period swells over a steep ocean floor produce bigger surf. Due to the ocean floor bathymetry of Chenal de Moorea and its rapid ascent to the reef, calculations and tables show that a 17 second, 9ft swell would have produced 12ft to 18ft breaking waves on the reef that day. As for the Passe de Ta’apuna, all that water and energy that had traveled so far had nowhere to go except to flow out the channel and against Full
Monty
. Despite science, I should have known better.

Jenny Lang, a former cruising kid, is currently sailing with her family aboard their Privilege 482 catamaran, Full Monty; at the time of writing, Full Monty was back on the Caribbean side of Panama.

Photos courtesy of Jenny Lang

MHS Winter 2019

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