The first wave rose suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Dane, are you sure this is okay?” Jessi queried, a smothered concern in her tone.
“Yeah, it’ll be fine,” I answered. “But you’d better let me take the wheel.” It was a stock answer. Having been through the pass many times, I felt overly comfortable. But by the time I’d said “fine,” it was already clear that my estimation of the tide stage was flawed. Horribly flawed. The ebb tide created a disturbingly large launch ramp of water and we rapidly bearing down upon it. Cadence, our trusty fiberglass 1965 Grampian 37, had seen waves many times worse and handled them all like a champ. The problem was, this would only be the first wave.
Cadence bowed into the trough, like a vaulter preparing for flight.
In the gaping maw of Tiputa Pass, the widest, cruise-ship-sized pass of the two navigable channels on the atoll of Rangiroa, a magnificent full moon illuminated the wildly surreal scene unfolding around us. Behind us was a 40-mile-long lagoon, the second biggest in the world, like a giant tranquil fishbowl bathed in a beautiful blue night. Moments earlier, motoring away from the lagoon I gawked at how serene and inviting the anchorage was – calmer than I’d ever seen it. I didn’t dare look back any more. I thought the tide was supposed to be flooding or slack, making transiting the pass a relatively benign, scenic stroll. It was supposed to be flooding. I clearly had miscalculated. As we bounded up wavelet numero uno, the crest of the next wave loomed ahead, a ferment of foamy, terrifying splendor. Beyond it I caught a glimpse of parallel ridges of froth, waiting like eager rows of shark teeth.
Tidal currents, governed by the magnitude of the tides, reach their greatest potency at full and new moons. When ocean swells encounter currents moving in an opposing direction, those swells get bigger and steeper. If you ignorantly stumble jauntily into the wrong place at the wrong time, like at max ebb on a full moon eve, one might find oneself in a wee bit of a pickle… as we did on this silken tropical night. The outgoing tidal torrent clashed with the swells to create some terrible seas, and by the time I realized what was happening, there was no turning back. Cadence, with her little anemic motor and despite having full sail set, was caught in the tractor-beam of the Tiputa River, like the Millennium Falcon being sucked into the clutches of the Empire.
Theorem: A six-knot current ripping though the pass as the mega-aquarium purges itself with the tide
+ counter swells
+ one little boat and its miscalculating captain
= One very wet boat, and one very rattled crew.
Proof: Last Monday.
Cadence rose to the next wave, pointed her bow at the sky and plunged into the crest like a spear. The sea and air became one for an instant, and as she shook off hundreds of gallons of brine, the decks were completely awash. There’s a saying that a true sailor never flinches from a spray, and though thoroughly saturated, Jessi didn’t appear to bat an eye. As she wiped the clinging drops from her brow and looked over at me, squinting through the salt, our eyes met. “Shutterboards,” I said. It wasn’t an exclamation, but more a matter-of-fact imperative. They should have been in already, but it simply hadn’t crossed my mind earlier because I wasn’t expecting anything remotely rough. The tide was supposed to be flooding. Oops.
Jessi began to board up the hatch but was faced with a low-grade Tetris puzzle when she found the boards were out of order. “DON’T PANIC,” I firmly urged. And somehow she didn’t. With a focused, singular determination she fitted the slats together in record time, despite shaky hands and minimal lighting. She said later that it was better to not look up anyhow.
I was similarly focused; never have I been such an astute helmsman. I’ve jumped skateboards and bikes off ramps, and even jumped a truck, but I’ve never jumped a boat. Hang time jumped. Total air jumped. That’s a first for me, check that off the bucket list. People watching on shore would probably assume Cadence to be a breaching whale, if not for the sails slicing through the air like frantic white flags. On the first wave I thought about how I’d fracked up and we never should have been there. The only escape for us lay through perseverance, no matter how terrible I felt for subjecting Jessi to this. By the second wave my thoughts were zen’d out and unflinchingly attuned to the task at hand. I had a strange passing sensation that this all seemed like something out of a dream, one of those really clear ones that stick with you when you wake up.
Jessi fitted the last of the boards and held on tight as we tobogganed down the pass and launched over (or through) the rest of the waves. Just two or three of them came aboard, but each one looked like it might deliver a soaking until the very last moment. Only with the engine at full RPM could I maintain steerage, vital to our remaining safely square-on to the waves. Even then, I could scarcely hear Old-Blue, our sort-of-trusty old Atomic 4 tractor motor, hollerin’ over the roar of the seascape around us.
It felt it would never end, but in reality it was only a minute or two until the waves lost their bite. They were still ugly, and from two directions, but they weren’t so dangerous anymore. With a “swoosh!” dolphins leaped from the face of a wave off our port side, slick and shiny in the moonlight. I’ve sat on shore and watched their acrobatics in the midst of the ebb many times, but perhaps tonight they thought it prudent to stick to more settled waters.
“Dolphins!” I observed, over-enthusiastically. Normally, Jessi loves dolphins. This time she didn’t care.
“Yeah, yeah, Dolphins…” she later recounted thinking. “We almost died and he’s thinking about dolphins?”
With the lights of Tiputa and Ohotu already behind us, the GPS said we were still doing 9 knots in the tidal river. The needle had pegged at a maximum of 12 in the pass. Cadence only goes 5 knots with the motor red-lined, and though sails were set, the winds were light. Rangiroa had chewed us up and spit us out, like Jonah from the belly of a big blue whale.
Aside from frayed nerves, a few more gray hairs and this pesky, persistent st-st-stutter, we pulled through largely unscathed. The genoa bag I keep on deck was nearly swept away, hanging half overboard and saved only by the casual clove-hitch which secured to the lifelines. Our bucket collection on the stern rail was nearly torn loose, but happily remained on board. A good bucket is extraordinarily hard to find in Polynesia. The floor below was soaked, but not from the main hatch. The dorade vents, designed to pass air but not let spray in, turn out to not be such good performers when heaps of water are poured directly into them. Surprisingly, because we hit the waves so squarely, the center of the cockpit was remarkably orderly and though drenched, it was never awash. It could have been a lot worse, and it gives me shivers every time I th-th-think about it. We got lucky this time and made off with a story to tell, lessons learned, and fair winds awaiting us for our trip to Raiatea. And maybe, just maybe, if my luck holds out I may even get away with my life after Jessi’s mom reads this.
Dane Johnson, S/V Cadence II