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Adventures in the Ha’apai islands, the dangerous archipelago...

Ha’apai, in Tonga. Large islands, small islands, and reefs. Hundreds of reefs... 11th October We cleared out of the Vava’u Group, filled the jerry cans with petrol, visited the fruit and veg market, then the Chinese shop, then we went to sea without delay, heading south towards Ha’apai, the archipelago situated between Vava’u in the north and Tongatapu to the south. The sailing boat La Tortue, which we had met in Niue, had just been wrecked there. As is very often the case in incidents at sea which end badly, they were victims of an unfortunate succession of technical problems which progressively worsened the situation, until it became worrying, then unpleasant, then finally disastrous. A quite classic process. We were going to the spot to see what we could do, recover some equipment at the worst, at best see if the boat could be refloated, and if not, make the wreck safe, as a minimum. The crew was already safe in Nuku’alofa, and we were in contact with them. I call Ha’apai the dangerous archipelago: it deserves the name. Probably even more so than the Tuamotus, where the approach to the atolls is often clear, steep-to. Few sailing boats venture there, at least in its most remote parts. Which in itself for me was sufficient reason to justify going to have a look... This was not without a price, as you will soon see... The Ha'apai Group is definitely not a good spot for apprentice navigators. Even experienced sailors should beware. Firstly, the place is poorly charted. Then the electronic cartography is offset, in other words wrong, by several hundred meters. The currents there are strong despite a small tidal range. And there are hundreds of reefs just below the surface of the water! It’s relatively easy to give you an idea of what the place is like: exaggerating slightly, there is not a single angular degree of the horizon where you can’t see breakers! In comparison, the Chaussée de Sein (renowned tidal race off western France) is a boulevard. In short, you must keep your eyes open, only sail during the day, and as far as possible with the sun behind you, not hesitate to climb up to the spreaders, not take your eye off the echo sounder, always be ready for an emergency maneuver and try to be safe in an anchorage before nightfall. But the most underhand danger is the squalls, especially at night... We chose the safest, exterior route, via the west of the archipelago, to get to Kelefesia, the most southerly island of the Ha’apai Group: it was here, 115 miles south of Neiafu that La Tortue was wrecked. The winds were light and unstable all night, and daybreak saw us using both engines. We passed close to the drop off of a long coral reef. It was a good place for fishing; there were lots of birds there. Suddenly the two fishing lines ran out violently at the same time. The metallic warning pawls went mad. Marin and I love this, while Adélie remains strategically neutral, ...

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