Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Tarawa Lagoon - A Tale of Two Anchorages and a Clearance (Part 2 of 2)

[Part 2 of 2]

I mentioned an eventful night. I also mentioned that the anchorage was bouncy. It is not normally a problem to experience 15+ kts of wind, but in this case it was blowing from across the lagoon, making the town of Betio a lee shore with a long fetch. When we returned from doing our clearances and took a look at the rusting hulk of a cargo vessel wrecked on the reef right behind us, we decided to anchor a little further out for overnight, as we no longer needed to be artificially close to humour a non-existent boarding party. We moved to a safer location and set our anchor with over 50% power [of our oversized 84 hp diesel] as we always do, had an early dinner, and hoped for the first full night of sleep in a week. Mother Nature had other ideas, however, and the dream of sleep had to wait for another night. The external alarm on our AIS Anchor Watch began to sound in the wee hours, and for the first time in four years, our anchor dragged. The sea state was short and very sharp, the lagoon was quite shallow, and even with long snubber lines, the bigger waves were causing our anchor to snatch, jerking it out of the fine white silt of the bottom (sand has better holding). The pink and blue designation for boat jobs apparently applies to sounds as well - I generally hear the first snuffle of Benjamin stirring beside me, but the wailing sound of the anchor alarm roused only Max, who by the time I stirred to consciousness, was on the foredeck playing out more snubber line in the hope of taking some of the direct loading off the anchor. Even though the nearly-full moon made the night really bright, we wanted to wait until morning to re-anchor if possible, so Max stood at the bow for ages, watching the two snubbers and the chain loading up in turn, and making fine adjustments to keep it all in balance. Thank goodness we were no longer directly in front of the reef! In reality, we didn't drag very far (10-20 ft) but it was the unknown nature of it all that was unsettling. In the morning, we re-anchored, printed our paperwork (to request permission to visit the outer islands), and launched the dinghy all in time for Max to make his appointments at Customs, Quarantine and Immigration :)

Victoria and Johnathan often do jobs on Fluenta that would be unusual at home, but on this morning, even I was worried. We had decided that Benjamin and I would stay aboard Fluenta, and that we didn't want to leave the dinghy in the inner harbour while Max went to Quarantine and Immigration [Immigration is in another town 30 min away by bus] so that left Victoria and Johnathan as the taxi service. Given the sea state, we reinforced the need for careful operation, life jackets, radio, kill switch, etc, then we trusted them to do their job with care and attention. Max drove ashore, and the kids called when they were heading back. It seemed like an age before they emerged from the inner harbour, and I could see them crossing the anchorage, staying high into the wind as Max had instructed them. Some of the waves looked to be nearly the size of the dinghy, and the two kids looked very small as they inched their way closer and closer. Of course, they were fine, and nonchalant about their accomplishment, but I was proud and grateful anyway! It was the same white knuckle crossing in reverse a couple of hours later when Max was ready to be collected: VHF in hand, I watched them cross the anchorage and then waited with hope until I heard them radioing Max to arrange the pick up location. I felt like I had gained some empathy for our parents who deal daily with their children setting off on a boating adventure a world away from home :)

With hardly a backwards glance at the reef strewn with hulking wrecks, or the dirty waterfront, we set off for the Parliament anchorage almost as soon as Max and the kids were back. Max used a combination of C-Map charts and satellite imagery (on SAS Planet) to plot our route. The Navionics charts on our chartplotter were not as accurate as the C-Map ones on the laptop, and several times, our chartplotter told him we were driving over a reef. I stayed on the bow for most of the crossing; generally uneventful, it was very shallow as we approached the anchorage. We were approaching the Full Moon, which meant that we were also approaching the most extreme tides for the month: if we went aground, we would theoretically be stuck there until the next full moon. This was the shallowest anchorage since Bora Bora: at low tide, Max could have stood on the bottom and touched the keel with the top of his head!

Once we settled at the Parliament anchorage, it was immediately apparent that this spot was as calm as the down-town anchorage had been rough; that this one was as clean as the other had been dirty. Rather than going ashore to a garbage dump and a dirty harbour, we followed a pretty little channel into a sea wall, anchored at the parliamentary dock, and were guided by security to the front gate, while two other guards kept watch over our dinghy! Watching the full moon creep up over the edge of the lagoon, we felt like we had arrived in a completely new world :)

One of the most noticeable features of the Tarawa Lagoon is the striking green colour of the water. For the first time on our cruise, we noticed that the cloud bottoms were tinted by the lagoon beneath them. We wondered if this was because the entire lagoon was so shallow, so there was more green and less dark-blue in the water being reflected by the clouds. The water seems to be particularly silty. This may add to its green appearance, and it also served to hide the reefs at high water. We knew there were reefs near the anchorage based on the satellite images, but as we approached, I could not see them *at all* no matter how hard I squinted and used my imagination. We assumed that the colouring we had seen on the satellite imagery was some kind of variation in the bottom, but nothing of any substance.

Imagine our surprise the following morning to come on deck to the lowest tide of the month (Full Moon effect - spring tide) to see all the reefs clearly visible in every direction !! We had safely navigated to our anchor spot by following the track that Max had plotted ahead of time with GPS and satellite imagery, but it was unnerving to see the reefs that had been completely invisible the previous day. The additional six feet of water, and the lack of clarity of the lagoon, had entirely cloaked the reef.

We had assumed that the rest of the cruising fleet would be anchored here: it turned out that it was, and we were half of the fleet! Rod (SY State of Mind) dropped by to give us the low-down. Cruisers for most of the last 26 years, he and his wife had spent the last six weeks in Kiribati, and had loved it. They had been to all of the islands we had listed in our paperwork, so we were glad to get recent first-hand stories of their visits, so that we could choose where to spend Christmas/New Year's. The deciding factor was that Butaritari (the northern-most island in this group) would have the most local fruits and veg, and we would be able to approach the shore in our dinghy at any tide. At some of the other atolls, we would either be stuck onboard or hiking across the reef for quite a distance to reach the shore at low tide, which we felt would be too limiting. In addition, there is no 3G at Butaritari, so we thought it would be a little more traditional.

As dirty and crowded as we had felt in the main town anchorage, the "Parliament" anchorage felt like an oasis. At low tide, the view was spectacular, with turquoise/green water and beige reef, bordered by a fringe of palm trees and the elegant peaks of the roofs of parliament. Perhaps a few days in Tarawa would not be so bad after all!

We will spend more time in Tarawa after Christmas, but for now we will be here only long enough to obtain our clearance for the outer islands (expected in one day) and wait for a weather window to go North to Butaritari (a couple more days).

Love to all,

At 2016-12-19 4:24 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 03°04.52'N 172°47.09'E
At 2016-12-19 4:30 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 03°04.53'N 172°47.09'E

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