We arrived at Tahanea Atoll in French Polynesia's Tuomotu island group with the thought that maybe we would accomplish some boat chores for a few days. To enter the lagoon of this large atoll, we navigated through a natural pass in the reef. There were actually three passes, but only one suitable for sailboats. Because we were planning to sand and generally make noise and dust, we anchored on the east side of the pass in order not to bother the five boats anchored on the west side.
While David scraped, sanded and varnished, I was a baking maniac. I made a huge batch of chocolate chip cookies which we planned to deliver to every boat in the other anchorage later in the afternoon. We wanted to explain the reasons for our self-imposed exile in the east anchorage and for not joining the crowd.
When the tide comes in and out through the reef cut, there's quite a bit of turbulence in the pass. All that water either rushing in or rushing out through the narrow opening, creates strong currents, but it's not noticeable unless you have to cross for some reason which we hadn't done up to this point. When we left Nine of Cups on the cookie delivery run, we could see some turbulence in the half-mile wide pass. We didn't take any gear with us – no shoes, water bottle, VHF – just the cookies. We were only planning to be gone for a short time. David filled up the gas tank, so we'd have plenty of fuel. With our 4HP dinghy engine, it took a while to navigate the pass. There were quite a few large, short- period, square waves. Our hard-bottomed inflatable dink would climb up one and then get slapped and bang down hard as it negotiated the next one. A somewhat rough ride over, but we managed. Though a bit wet-bottomed, we went about chatting with the cruisers there and delivered our cookies.
Less than an hour later, we were heading back to our boat. It appeared that the turbulence was no worse as we set out to cross the pass. It was slow going. The tide was ebbing. All that water in this very large lagoon, emptying into the ocean through three small openings. We really weren't too concerned until it became evident that we weren't making any headway across the pass at all. In fact, we were slowly getting pushed out through the pass towards the open ocean. Nine of Cups was now out of view around the point. David revved the engine a bit more and still no positive effect. He tried heading in different directions and we seemed to make a little progress, but not much. We continued this way for nearly an hour...long enough so that we were now concerned that we might run out of fuel. I tried to check the tank while we were in motion and it didn't appear to have anything in it. I was looking for a little slosh of fuel or maybe even the reflection of the fuel on the bottom of the tank, but nothing. David checked next, hoping I was mistaken, but I wasn't. We found ourselves in a rather unenviable situation and contemplated aloud what our options might be.
We could go with the tidal flow out the pass, turn the corner and hope to find refuge on the outside of the reef or perhaps we could find some small inlet within the pass that would get us out of the current. We scoured the shore for possibilities and spotted a tiny cove. With luck and some fancy maneuvering, we managed to wedge ourselves into an indentation in the coral not much bigger than the dinghy, but it was indeed calmer and out of the current. As we clambered out of the dinghy, we were reminded that we had no shoes and the coral cut our feet as we tried walking across the reef. Had we had our shoes, we reckoned we could have walked along the shallow reef and dragged the dinghy behind us on a long painter to get closer to Cups. Without shoes that option was impossible. The full moon was now on the rise and it was dusk. The thought of spending the night on this exposed reef was not appealing ... lots of mosquitoes, no water ... but it was better than the open ocean and we did have one extra package of cookies for dinner.
An hour passed and David threw a coconut in the water near us and we watched as it floated away ... but not as quickly as before. Perhaps, the current was easing a bit and trying to row the dinghy back to Cups, keeping close to shore, would work now. Inflatables are not known for their rowing attributes, but it seemed worth a try. We pushed the dink out of the little inlet and walked it out as far as we could to clear the reef, grouching and ouching as our feet were cut and scraped on the coral. Into the dinghy we climbed. As soon as David started rowing, the port oarlock pulled out. He could almost manage if I held the oarlock in place, but when the second oarlock pulled out, it was a no-go. Now what?
We each took an oar and started paddling, canoe-style, at the front of dinghy. We were making a little headway, but we were still quite far from the boat, though now at least, Cups was in view in the bright moonlight. We paddled for what seemed an eternity and finally needed a break. We'd see just how much fuel was actually left in the tank. The engine started on the first pull. Now, would it make it to the boat? As we got nearer and nearer Cups, we said all sorts of prayers, crossed our fingers, toes and eyes and did whatever else we thought would give us enough luck to make it back. Finally, Cups was within reach. With a huge sigh of relief, we grabbed the rail and secured the dinghy. David checked the gas tank. We were actually running on the fuel left in the carburetor. It might have lasted another second or two.
Moral of the story: Never deliver cookies without your shoes
After the fact, it's easy to think of all the things we could have and should have done differently. We hadn't checked the tides and we had seriously underestimated the rate of the current. We were totally unprepared for anything out of the ordinary and we know better. Though the outcome was favorable, we are keenly aware of what could have happened. The sea provides hard lessons if you become complacent.