Saturday, July 14, 2012

Suwarrow Atoll: exploration and watching weather

Our time on Suwarrow (pronounced Suh-wah-roh) has been spent slowly re-gaining our sleep, figuring out weather here in the South Pacific, and enjoying the idyllic (sunny, light wind) days exploring the atoll. Early on, while s/v Quixotic was here, we shared several nice meals, including a Tao-based pancake brunch, and Chris charged out to do some exceptional scuba diving with Ed (who has a compressor setup aboard) in this mid-Pacific aquarium. Besides several sharks (larger than those swimming around Tao) he saw manta rays, huge deep water clams with their colorful insides, turtles, numerous fish, and intricate coral trees sheltering a multitude of tiny fish located atop large bulbous coral formations. We finally made it ashore on Day-3 and circumambulated Suwarrow's largest motu, dubbed Anchorage Island, where we saw the Suwarrow "Yacht Club," talked to the two rangers, and met hermit crabs, coconut crabs and even black-tipped reef sharks swimming in the shallows along the way. A large weather system was forecast between Samoa and Suwarrow, so although feeling pressed for time, we decided to stay put until it passed around mid-July.

Once the decision to stay a little while had been made, we started to branch out for more in-depth explorations. First, was a reef walk at low tide between Anchorage Island and Whale Island, a half mile to its west. Next, Chris finally talked Shawn into some snorkeling with Suwarrow's curious black-tip sharks on a sunny calm day, thrilling and beautiful. After a few days of strong SE flow, winds backed and eased, and it became perfect Fatty sailing weather. On our test sail, conditions were so beautiful that we just kept on, passing by reefs with names like Little Patch and Man in the Boat. We ended up sailing close hauled to the southern edge of the atoll where we watched peaks of waves emerge from the windblown surface of the deep ocean, forming a short but stunning moment of liquid glass before abruptly toppling in aerated explosions onto the rimming reef. Juxtaposed, just inside the reef we gaped at tranquil Entrance Island motu.

Having been tracking the weather closely, we knew we had one more "nice" day before a storm came through. Originally we had intended to use it to explore Motu Tou on the far west side of the atoll, but with nearly due E winds, we decided against sailing nearly 6-nm downwind and having to beat back upwind to Tao. Instead, we hugged the upwind reef and explored the north end of the atoll. We anchored in sand amid jagged coral rock just off the Brushwood Islands, mere sandy beaches atop old coral, breaking ocean waves on the other side. From here we could see very shallow waters surrounding One Tree and Turtle Island at the true north terminus of the atoll and the broken edge of the other side of the atoll downwind of us. All the motus except Anchorage Island are bird and turtle nesting areas in this national park so we respectfully stayed off shore a distance and enjoyed watching the massive amount of activity around us.

You might be wondering, just what is an atoll? From our reading (especially Hinz's Landfalls of Paradise), an atoll represents the final stage of volcanic island erosion combined with coral reef development. Simply, it is a lagoon-encircling reef that in some instances is continuous and in others broken up into small islets or "motus". Most Pacific Islands were formed volcanically and coral reefs then formed around them. Once an island ceases to grown, erosion occurs, however as the volcanic island is eroded and eventually becomes submerged, the surrounding coral reef continues to grow between 150-ft of depth and the water surface. Gaps in the reef tend to form on the leeward side of the island (creating passes that are rather convenient for boaters) and are frequently caused by freshwater flow in which coral cannot grow. Fanning was a nearly continuous atoll enclosing approximately 9X6 square miles of shallow lagoon, while Suwarrow is formed of several motus enclosing approximately 9X11 square miles of deeper lagoon.

Just like anywhere else, boat projects also abound in paradise. There is the continual daily list of tasks including weather requests, downloads and analyses, food planning (what better place on Earth to grow our first sprouts? Delicious!), water catchment and management, cleaning, photograph management, and communication (e-mails and blogs). Then there are the lingering projects. Once we got Tao and her innards all dried out from the passage, we immediately performed a more detailed check of Moni including communication with the manufacturer, Scanmar International and have painted the water paddle with bottom paint to deter another fish hit. We re-routed our second reef line, which was not running smoothly this passage, added tube protectors to our chaffing lazy jacks, rebuilt (with duck tape) the plastic oven handle that disintegrated on passage, cleaned Tao's bottom, inventoried our dry stores and reorganized for easier access, and the list goes on. And of course there are the projects that pop up and nudge less important ones (like our much awaited cockpit bed project) back down the list, such as the silicone gasket needing to be rebed on our main salon hatch…

When we initially arrived, there was only one other boat anchored behind Anchorage Island. As we always do, we circled around the anchorage checking depths and looking for patches of coral, like a dog trying to find the perfect spot to settle down. Once the hook was down, Chris swam the anchor as always making sure Rocky was solidly set in sand and our chain ran clear of any coral heads and has done so every couple days since. We are in a great spot, but now find ourselves literally in the middle of 8 boats! Except for a thunderstorm that passed within 1 mile of us on our third night here, winds were mellow for the first 4 days. Sunday 8 July, brought stronger SE winds at 18-20 knots for 3-days of relative discomfort in the anchorage (Anchorage Island provides best protection from E winds, while SE winds have over 4-nm of fetch in which to create uncomfortable sized waves). Friday the 13th a storm came through, a bit closer to us than forecast, and brought winds clocking from N all the way to S throughout the night. As the day dawned, winds were from the S and uncomfortable seas assailed the anchored boats. Amid torrential downpours, Chris got in the water to unwrap our anchor chain from a coral head which had reduced us to half of our intended scope (thanks for the heads up on that s/v Pandion!). Of course, that was only after the boat downwind and the one to our port had disentangled from their own coral wraps so we then had enough room to swing. Our chain had one lingering coral snag so we turned Yannie on to motor up to it and unwrap, but by the time we got to it, the chain had worked its way free. With the engine on, Chris took the opportunity to look into the discrepancy in our battery monitor indication and our charge controller stating full banks. Surprisingly, he found that our two house AGMs were indeed in a differential state of charge. Closer inspection found the culprit- a loose connection wire! Hopefully the improved connection will solve our relatively recent battery monitor mystery. As if the morning had not been exciting enough, during the hubbub, our main salon hatch sprung a leak and Fatty, busy collecting bath water, nearly overtopped.

Here at Suwarrow, we are approximately 2,000-nm from Hawaii and have just over 2,500 more to go to reach Australia. It has been a struggle not to get too overwhelmed with the large distance we still have to travel, the myriad of places we hope to be able to visit along the way, and the short time before hurricane season in which to complete it. We work to enjoy the present moment, go with the flow and let the weather dominate all plans. We are grateful to have managed to stay at this remote atoll longer than originally expected (as usual), and are quite happy to have made it here before the bulk of this year's Pacific Puddle jumpers. Since Raratonga's harbor is currently closed for dredging, Suwarrow will soon be heavily trafficked. The cruising style that we have developed over the past few years has been quite slow paced, and we tend to enjoy the less traveled and more remote places. However, to make those miles, we have to pick up our pace or steadily cross places to visit off the list. Only time will tell, but we hope to get underway in the next few days and have nearly decided to bypass American Samoa and make our next landfall the less visited Western Samoa.


  1. Sounds magificent! I bet you've taken some amazing pictures to compliment your prose. Can't wait to see them.

    Hugs from hot, hazy, humid Ithaca.

  2. So jealous.

    I'm gonna go inflate the kiddie pool on my patio so I can have my own atoll experience.