The night we almost lost our boat: Occluded Fronts and Associated Stunts
You can listen to this story here if you prefer (podcasts)
If you think G&Ts on the aft deck in a protected anchorage are part of life within the Pacific Ocean, you would not be alone. However, witnessing the terrific splendour of nature unrestrained may distort this view, it did for us. Traversing the Pacific Ocean on Mariah was a breeze. For the second time on board Pyewacket, we were experiencing, shall we say, more ‘testing’ times – even in ‘protected anchorages. This gave us serious thought to seeking out islands with airports and yacht brokers instead of island hopping to places of beauty, history and charm!
Anchored at the Gambier Islands (southeast corner of the Society Islands) was spent comparing different weather sources with other cruisers. We all agreed (mostly) that to the north were strong NW winds and south, strong SE winds. “Funny isn’t it? We are right in the middle, ha ha ha, another cup of tea dear?” Although the unstable whims of Nature and Neptune are difficult to predict, there was obviously something afoot; but we were in a protected anchorage . . . and there lies the problem, a lee shore in every direction; the bay chock full of chillingly beautiful coral heads.
That night we maintained anchor watch. At 9pm, the wind and 30 of his mates were exposing Poseidon’s anger. At 11:15, I could see the lightning through tightly shut eyes. Suddenly a huge gust barrelled through the anchorage and swung us violently. Stumbling into the cockpit, I found an oft calm Noel dancing on his toes “I was just about to yell for you” he said. The last few words were snatched away by the noise of the wind generator flying at high speeds. “Turn off the wind generator” screamed Noel. “Turn the engine on” screamed I, as Pyewacket was slung over onto her gunwales.
Three long, terrifying hours ensued within the jaws of natural combatants where rules were their private whim; our opponent Mother Nature; our adversary Neptune, and our luck in Murphy’s fickle hands. Regularly we clocked gusts of over 55 knots, which very nearly knocked us completely over. Heart action sped, blood vessels contracted, and the gusts grew. A steady 45 knots persisted interspersed with the brutal gusts.
So what’s the big deal? These aren’t very pleasant winds at all, but they’re not horrendous. Many sailors have suffered fiercer fights with windy and his mates – as have we. The problem was the vortexing winds that clutched us in its vicious fist and the fact that we were trapped. The wind backed countless times, orbiting in full 360°; in a gut-wrenching, horrifying lurch from one direction to the next. The cruel gusts pinned us one way, eased to 45 knots and then the next great barrelling wall of wind would smack us on the opposite side!
Nature put on a performance of ear-splitting music, the beating halyards and howling winds clashing together reaching a cliff-hanger crescendo. We only had the occasional glimpse of a local house lamp to navigate us. Our solar panels were vibrating along with my shaking body. Riketea village sits on a crescent-shaped island, allowing the wind to whip along the inside curve and build speed, another ingredient in the following fracas.
Viewing the plotter it showed the kaleidoscopic winds pick up Pyewacket’s 20 tonnes and propel her and her wide-eyed crew straight over the anchor, pulling it clear of muddy restraints and tossing us all straight into the realms of chaos. We were no longer tethered to terra firma for a few heart-stopping moments. Of course, this was all taking place on the blackest night in history and most of the markers that highlighted the hidden reefs were unlit.
With the engine on, Noel concentrated on the plotter to hold us in clear water. I staggered to the bow to get an idea on the situation when Neptune took another swing at us with what felt like a giant cricket bat. I returned to the cockpit and Noel’s expectant face, the only answer I had was trembling knees.
Buying time before my next foray on to the bow, I trained the spotlight on two nearby cardinal markers around the nearest reef and SV Dana, who were getting closer (us moving not them). They too were dancing around their anchor. All ten boats in the anchorage had switched their navigation lights on; the VHF radio carried a distress call into the void, the disembodied voice filled our cockpit, the French language did not soften the anguish hanging on the words. Noel’s eyes were glued to the plotter, his white knuckles on the wheel, manipulating the motor to hold us within our original circle of anchorage, previously made while swinging in the last few weeks.
Just a few days before this terrifying night, our external oil cooler had corroded, allowing raw water into the sump. Several days of repairs had our engine functioning again, but they were temporary repairs. We bypassed the corroded cooler, as we had another, bolt-on cooler, on the engine, which was sufficient to get us to Tahiti to make proper repairs. The engine had been tested, gently. Now it was straining against it mounts, would the repairs hold?
“We’ll have to get the anchor up” shouted Noel, amid the clanging of wind beating all in its path. I thought I hadn’t uttered a word in reply, I remember feeling my eyes widen and tasting the acidity of bile. Noel reminds me that actually I had said, “I am not f***ing going up there, you can forget that idea!” I have no memory of saying this.
Twenty terrifying minutes of confusion reigned. Admittedly, I was petrified of lifting the anchor and the engine not coping. Would our propeller bite? Will the jury-rigged motor hold? I’m sure I heard Murphy snigger. What I had not grasped was that the anchor had lifted out of the sand by Pyewacket propelling right over it. We had moved by the wind’s hands and now the anchor had re-bitten. The problem was that if we now pulled back on the anchor, we would be on the reef. Noel was trying to drive us forward into clear water and the anchor was now stopping us going forward!
Noel stayed on the helm; he had a good handle on keeping the boat off the reefs. I dithered between a running commentary of where we were located in relation to reefs and other boats; flicking my eyes to the engine gauges and going up on the bow and trying to haul up the chain, which was stuck fast.
I am usually great at anchor management, even if I say so myself, but tonight fear had its steely grip on my innards and I couldn’t grasp what was happening. Sitting next to the windlass (it was impossible to stand up in the wind), I am sure I whimpered several times. My overexcited brain had me thinking that at any moment we’d be on the reef, my unruly imagination had me catapulted off the boat, squished between coral and 20 tonnes of boat, or floating off into the black void.
In a momentary lull, Noel ran forward to help and simply let go the other anchor. We had stopped spinning at this point, the second anchor dug in – all good. For a few seconds we actually managed to take some breaths before facing the capricious character of Mother Nature and her rascally mate Neptune.
Then it dawned on me what was happening. I felt ill when I knew for certain the anchors had to be lifted. I put the searchlight around again, we were too close to SV Dana, if we swung differently, we would hit. We could see the brown coral reef in the beam of the spotlight. Everything was rattling, sliding and clashing within the boat, my teeth were clattering in time with everything else.
At the end of spot light’s eerie beam, I lit the cardinal marker, literally inches off our stern – how we were not on the reef I just do not know. I shrieked (in a very lady-like fashion), “FORWARD NOW, WE ARE ABOUT TO HIT!” Noel drove us forward and bought me to my senses, “WE HAVE TO PULL THE ANCHORS UP”. There was no time for me to gain a handle on the helm, I’m the anchor expert on board, and there was no getting out of it.
Our second anchor rode of rope with an additional 10 metres of heavy chain, was caught between the two bow rollers, I could not free it. I had to fight for some slack to wrap around the warping drum. It took a lot to overcome my fear, I felt completely exposed on deck. On the bow, wrapped in terror, wishing we were out in open sea, I tied off the main anchor chain to free up the gypsy and therefore the warping drum for the second anchor. In a lull, I hauled up some slack and started the winch.
Noel kept us into the wind and the strain off the anchor rodes, as well as off the reef. The process of driving forward and falling back took us sideways, losing steerage. He’d reverse into the wind, then the wind would overtake that momentum and the process would start again.
Within the storm’s full fury of 57 knot gusts, I concentrated on the task at hand. The entire rope part, of anchor two, was in; the last part of chain was caught on the strops of the main anchor. Noel must have been wondering what I was doing – it felt like I’d been fighting on the bow for hours.
I could instantly see the solution. I looped another rope over the caught chain and slid that rope along the chain, pulling it up to the side of the boat (near where it was caught), this allowed me to grasp the chain and haul it and the anchor straight up, over the lifelines on starboard side, free of constraints. It was a struggle, but fear provides great strength. I lashed it to the deck and stumbled back to the cockpit to tell Noel the first anchor was up. He was delighted and relieved “bloody brilliant, well done!” This gave me the courage I needed to get back out to retrieve the main anchor. We decided not to turn on the deck lights and maintain night-vision, our communication was by torchlight. We agreed that once the main anchor was off the seabed floor I would flash a light three times, Noel would motor to a clear area, flash me three times, and I would let go the anchor once again. The wind was a comfortable 40 knots now, but still gusting something horrid.
I had never put our windlass under severe load, but that night I begged and cajoled it in all sorts of ways (soothing, swearing and pledging lifelong allegiance to fresh oil and tender strokes to its innards). Some of the more colourful words I’ll leave for your imagination.
The twenty-metre mark on the chain passed, I knew the anchor was clear of the seabed. I flashed my torch three times, Noel moved us to the middle of the bay, into safe water. He flashed me three times, I let go the anchor. Suddenly we had re-anchored with the wind abating to just below 40 knots, still gusting, but with less fight in it.
We stayed up all night. Noel was outstanding on the helm, for a while I was paralysed by fear, but prevailed just in the nick of time. We missed the reef by seconds. We suffered only bruises, one jerry can broke.
Noel recalls that the track on the plotter was fantastic. Having our anchor spot marked, he could see that we had left our radius from the original anchor position and this provided him with somewhere to steer back to, otherwise, we were just lost in the thick black night.
We learned later that within the melee SV Dana had thought of helping us and prepared fenders alongside their boat. “If you couldn’t stop yourselves going, we were ready to catch you” they said, which brought tears of gratitude to both Noel and I.
We were feeling too far south and craved settled latitudes and distance from the occluded fronts and high-pressure ridges that tail off from the perpetual lows born from New Zealand that travel east. We considered setting up a yacht brokerage here, I think we would have had several customers. As our lovely British friends, on board “Pacific Bliss” said, “We just wanna go home!” A few days later we started to feel better, funnily enough we were walking on land at that point.
What we would have done differently
- A heavier anchor maybe? But dragging wasn’t the problem, being propelled straight over the top of the anchor will always lift it.
- Head/mic sets for us both, so we could talk while I was on the bow. Lighting my hand signals with the torch did work okay.
- We paid a lot of attention to the weather (and two different weather forecast providers predicted gusts of 30 knot winds only), but we’ll certainly be more aware with opposing winds on either side of us and pronounced dips in isobars.
- Anchor in a place where we can escape. We both felt that being at sea would have been better – no fun-park ride – but fewer things to hit. You can reef down, go with the wind with the windvane controlling (instead of fighting it) and have control of the boat. It would have been impossible to leave this anchorage during the storm winds. Rikitea has a windy, narrow, coral-strewn channel that would not allow for a gust of 57 knots of wind pushing you sideways (the channel is not lit).
- We mostly maintain Pyewacket in a ready-to-go fashion, this prevented gear breaking. The jerry can split as it wasn’t put away properly.
Other boats: one boat dragged up to a wharf. He was hitting bottom, hence the distress call. He did not suffer any major damage. All the other boats in the anchorage faired okay. Some anchors held, some didn’t. Some cruisers decided to pull up anchor and circle the anchorage. This made for a busy little bay, but we all lived to tell the tale. Now how about that cup of tea?
See what else we get up to here.