Thursday, September 15, 2016
We are securely anchored in the small boat lagoon on the island of Aitutaki, southern Cook Islands. We arrived yesterday morning, Wednesday September 14, after a five day passage from Bora Bora, French Polynesia. The passage was faster than we anticipated – we had to slow ourselves down so as not to arrive in darkness – and this anchorage is much smaller.
We came through the somewhat infamous & nerve-wracking pass in the morning at around 7:30, about an hour after high tide. There was sufficient water underneath the keel as long as we were careful to stay inside the 40′ wide channel. That’s right: The channel is narrower than Tim’s boat is long (at 52′), with boat-eating coral reefs on both sides. Forty feet looks very narrow after the whole of the south Pacific ocean when you’re barreling through between rough coral on both sides under maximum throttle against a strong outgoing current. Fortunately, the channel is well marked with white PVC pipe poles slipped over rebar that is set in concrete on the coral. [How does he know that? One was bent over and construction obvious.] We touched once, predicted by those with experience here, as we neared the lagoon inside the entrance. But at that point the bottom was sand, so no harm done.
Once inside, the small anchorage looks and is, very small. Very small. Perhaps three cruising boats of Velic’s size (35′, 9 tons) could squeeze into the pocket-sized basin. Maybe four if you’re good friends and have all fenders out. The practice is to anchor bow or stern, then tie the other end of the boat to a coconut tree on the shore. This prevents the boat from swinging on the anchor. Be sure to have a looong coconut tree line. Instead of this, we anchored just outside the small-boat basin in a designated anchorage area, yet still quite close to shore and well inside the protective coral reef. We ended up here sort of by guess and by golly, hunting for water about 2 meters deep or so (Velic draws 1.6 meters, and we are floating in 1.9 meters at the moment.) The holding is good and there is only a small reef between us and the small boat basin. It’s short row to shore. There is, however, a strong and fast current running through the lagoon, under the boat, and out the pass. This current is created by the ocean swells crashing against the reef on the windward side of the island. The reef is, of course, porous coral and water continuously pours into the lagoon on the windward side. It then rushes around the island and pours out through the pass, the pass that we used. Unlike most of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, where the lagoons inside the reefs have deep navigable channels, Aitutaki has only this one navigable small boat basin. None of the rest of the lagoon is deep enough for any boat drawing more than 1 meter (~ 3.3 feet). This helps explain why long, narrow, and shallow outrigger or catamaran canoes are the indigenous boat form. They float above the coral.
It’s quite windy across the anchorage this afternoon. Aitutaki is a kite-boarding destination. We can see the kites at Honeymoon Motu from here. But there is no chop or wind wave and the boat lies quietly at anchor. We have two anchors out holding the stern into the current, with rodes (salty talk for anchor chain and rope) on each side of Velic. Why anchored stern to the wind and current? Well, Randy likes to take the primary anchor off the bow for longer ocean passages. This reduces weight on the bow and eliminates the bang-and-thud noise of the anchor against the anchor rollers as the boat rocks and rolls in the ocean swells. It also eliminates any chance that the anchor could get away and take 300′ of chain and rope into the deep sea. But, it also means that when you pull into a very small anchorage with strong current and the wind sideways there is no anchor on the bow. The stern anchor is ready-at-hand and only needs the rode shackled to it, Hence, dropping the stern anchor is faster and more than strong enough, here. Then the bow anchor was led aft to back up the stern anchor and reduce overall swing radius (remember those boat-eating corals?). So, in an experiment, Velic is hanging off two stern anchors. And quite happily at that. Maybe the funny canoe shaped stern helps. Experimental anchoring outcomes may be forthcoming in the next post.
We had been here a bit longer than four hours; fussing with anchors, tidying up the boat, eating a light lunch and taking short naps. The yellow “Q” flag was flying. Then, while discussing whether to row ashore or wait, a young fellow contacted us by the hi-tech method of standing on the quay and waving. Waving clearly at us. With an ID tag on a lanyard hanging around his neck and a blue clipboard in hand he had all the look of an official come to check on us. We rowed over while he waited in the shade of a pickup truck on the quay. (When was the last time a bureaucrat just waited for you to launch the dinghy, organize documents, and row over?) Victor represented agricultural control and asked to board Velic to inspect for produce, which we freely admitted to having. Leaving Ruth ashore, Victor and Randy rowed back to Velic with the blue clipboard. Victor was polite, professional, and good natured. He complemented the tidy and clean boat, and was surprised at no refrigerator full of vegetables and meats. Not long after they rowed back. Victor lugged a large garbage bag containing all the fresh fruits and vegetables in Velic. He had done his job well. Nothing fresh was left aboard. I did not have the temerity to ask if we could buy all these vegetables here to replenish ship’s stores. With no fresh foods, we also learned that we are to stay aboard until the health inspection takes place, again on board. Ironically there is some sort of seminar and in-service training today with the “Big Boss” from Rarotonga here. So no further bureaucratic action until tomorrow.* For context, Rarotonga island is the capital of the Cook Islands, 140 nautical miles south of Aitutaki. So the “Big Boss” came by boat or airplane. He did not just drive up from Salem, OR to Portland. A big deal indeed.
Tomorrow, assuming our health proves acceptable, we will begin exploring Aitutaki. And shopping for produce.
* And no fresh veggies or fruit until Thursday, either! Dinner was an out-of-the-can creation. We are grateful that eggs are not among the forbidden things to bring in on a small boat arriving in the Cooks.