For five days, we watched our friends in their misery. I could empathize with their frustration. Crystal asked me a number of times, “What are you thinking?” referring to our decision to go cruising. This is not something I can answer while out at sea. I hoped that like for us, when she returned to land and waited the requisite three days, Manihi would work its magic. Soon, all her misery-memories would fade, and instead, be replaced with experiences one could never achieve on a normal vacation.
Manihi “island” is a circular strip of coral, three city blocks wide at its widest. In the center of the circle is more ocean. To access the center circle, there is a break in the coral just wide enough for Sonrisa to slide through. During incoming or outgoing tides, the water rushes through the break in the coral either flowing inward toward the atoll, or outward to the ocean. During these tides, the water flows like a rolling river and will sweep Sonrisa into its current. The best practice is to wait until slack tide when the inlet is calm. We arrive at the opening about a half hour too early, so we float in Sonrisa, watching the water rushing out of the inlet with its waves and rapids until tide starts to calm. Once the opening smooths to a calm, we use Sonrisa’s trusty motor to push our way through a narrow slot in the coral. The depth drops to 7 feet, I follow the channel to the left, then to the right and we pop through the other side without trouble.
Once inside, we pass fish traps, pearl farms and coral heads looming just below the surface. Crystal and Andrew stand on the bow, trying to spot the coral and steer me away. We follow the handy access instructions provided by a local, and hover over the GPS coordinates he gave us for an anchorage. At its most shallow, the anchorage is still 62 feet deep! In order to anchor safely, we need at very least 400 feet of chain out. 400 feet of chain will undoubtedly wrap itself in knots around the coral. This will not work. We motor further into the atoll and try a second area of GPS coordinates, but it is also unworkable. We try our own spot in a shallow 35 foot area, but it is far too close to shore for me to be comfortable. We have the chain down for a total of five minutes, but when Andrew jumps in to take a look, it is already tied in knots. Sharks circle beneath him while he guides me around the coral heads to pull up the anchor and try a new place.
Sonrisa’s whole crew begins to pout. As we try to decide what to do next, a thick blanket of black clouds obscure the sun, and under a gun metal grey sky we are pelted by rain.
“We have to keep sailing. There is nowhere safe to anchor here.” Andrew says. Crystal and Kevin take pitchforks in hand, and I’m pretty sure the word “MUTINY” began forming at the corner of their mouths. We were all soaked through, tired from our night passage, frustrated, and fretting about hitting a coral head.
“I think we should put Kevin at very least on land, and he can fly to meet us at our next stop.” I suggest, through the torrents of water splattering my face. I keep my hands on the helm and one eye on the GPS. I can see Andrew’s “give the boat away and go home” mood developing, and there is little I can do to prevent it.
“Maybe we can go into town and ask where best to anchor?” Crystal suggests. Either way, we need to get Kevin to land. So, we creep toward the town’s minuscule boat harbor, just large enough to hold a handful of fishing pangas and one barge.
As I nudge Sonrisa’s nose into the harbor, my nuckles tightened on the helm. “How am I ever going to turn around to exit?” I think. The harbor is so small and circled by reef. In the center, I can see a pristine white sand bottom…if we can just temporarily have an 80’x80’ space, that may allow us to put the anchor down, swim to shore and ask a local for a better place to moor or anchor. We inch our way in, garnering the attention of various locals. They watch us with their heads cocked sideways.
Despite the fact that the marina was barely twice the size of Sonrisa, Andrew drops the anchor and the locals start pointing at us. “We just want to get our friend to land and then we will leave!” I try to explain in English to Tahitian/French speakers, through a pouring rain. The locals wave me off, and instead a man steps onto a 40’x20’ barge and maneuvers it with precision until it just hoovers next to Sonrisa. He explains we can’t anchor in the middle of their local anchorage, they have to take their boats out for work.
Translated to English: “You guys are a menace.”
In the best French I can muster (which is almost no French at all…) I explain again that we needed a temporary spot to ask a local where we can anchor safely or in the alternative, drop Kevin off at their little airport. The barge driver points back at the anchoring spot we just tried, but I explained to him that it is too deep for our anchor chain. Do other boats just anchor there anyway? What are we missing? We thank him, and turn to go back out for more brainstorming. Then, seeing our soggy foul weather gear and drooping spirits, he changes his mind. He squeezes the barge past Sonrisa and parks it in a different spot. He waves at us to stop and indicates we should pull along side the barge in reverse.
Unfortunately, this requires me to back up in the direction that Sonrisa cannot go. She detests — no, refuses — to back up to port (the left if you are facing forward on the boat) without room to get a running start. I give her some gas and she pulls straight back on the anchor chain. I turn the wheel to the right and go forward, pushing her bow around the way I want it to go, but just barely. I back up again. Now, this helpful local begins driving my boat from shore. Standing on the dock, he yells out instructions in French, points for forward and reverse, then circles his hand with palm out indicating I should turn the steering wheel. I follow the instructions, and complete a 10 point turn moving forward, back, forward, back in tiny increments until Sonrisa’s stern has inched its way around and we can throw the ropes to our new friend.
Soon we are all tied up, I thank him profusely, and offer him a beer for his help. He laughs and explains “No, thank you. I am the police chief and I have to work.” Oh lord! We are a menace.
The marina is dead calm, even in a blow. For the first time since we left San Diego Sonrisa sits peacefully in still waters. Sonrisa’s crew lets out a collective sigh of relief and begin tidying up. Life is better in Manihi.