Shipwrecked in shelter
The saloon was waist deep in water. Subscribe to Boating NZ at www.mags4gifts.co.nz/boating-nz
With huge sighs of relief we dropped anchor in Suwarrow, the remote Pacific atoll in the northern Cook Islands that was once an idyllic home for Kiwi recluse Tom Neale.
My husband David Morgan had read Neale's book, An Island to Oneself, many years ago, delighting in his colourful story of solitary life on Suwarrow in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. It inspired us to take the northern route from French Polynesia to Tonga via this dot on the chart, rather than the southern route through Rarotonga.
After a particularly scruffy five-day passage from the French Polynesia Island of Maupiti, near Bora Bora, we just wanted to drop the hook and sleep. It wasn't to be. At midnight, a gale tore through the anchorage.
Unloading the stricken vessel.
We had left French Polynesia in late July on our Moody 46 Bandit, in 15-20 knot winds. We had some good sailing but, as usual in the tropics, the squalls kept us on our toes. We arrived off Suwarrow in drizzle and overcast skies, and gingerly picked our way through the pass, relieved that our charts were accurate and that the reefs and shoal ground were easy to see from my spot on the bow. In this part of the world, eyeball navigation is essential.
The lagoon was littered with coral heads so it was difficult to find a good place to anchor; we took our time and eventually found a reasonable patch of sand. As usual, we snorkelled down to ensure the anchor was well set and as free from coral as possible. Inquisitive black tipped reef sharks kept an eye on us, and we kept an eye on them as we swam through the tepid turquoise waters. Afterwards we washed five days of accumulated salt water off Bandit, put our wet weather gear out to dry and enjoyed a traditional landfall rum. We soaked up the beauty of this gorgeous setting before sinking into bed.
The gale arrived at midnight, wrenching us from sleep. We raced on deck to find chaos: boats straining at anchor and swinging unpredictably as chains snagged on coral. Our first concern was that we might drag, so David started the engine on and maintained the revs while I grabbed the torch to take a visual on the other boats nearby but it was difficult in driving rain and with no moon.
All sailors know that feeling when you are at the mercy of the elements. We trust our anchor - a 25kg stainless steel Delta - and we had 40m of chain out in 7m depth but I kept wondering whether we would hold. Worse, with such poor visibility, would we know if we were dragging? Given the appalling conditions, we turned on the chart plotter to mark our position and set a drag alarm.
The VHF crackled into life as the boat beside us called to say he felt we were getting too close. His chain had snagged on coral, reducing his swinging room, and he was concerned we would crash into him when we swung. That seemed the least of our worries and nothing a few fenders over the side wouldn't deal with.
In a coral-strewn anchorage, there is always a chance of snagging the chain; sometimes windlasses can be torn from decks. I could see concern on David's face. As the wind increased to 35 knots, I became absolutely terrified.
The last time we'd had strong wind at anchor was on the East Coast of the United States when 53 knots slammed into us without warning, sending us dragging sideways in an anchorage with a soft muddy bottom. We had deployed our second anchor, a Fortress, in record time, and it saved our bacon. Stupidly, this time, because we'd been on passage, the 100m warp was stowed in the aft locker. Due to our tiredness, we had left it there. Bad move.
Then I heard the distinctive graunch of chain on coral, and I screamed over the wind to David. I took the helm while he went to investigate and discovered our thick snubber line; ie, shock absorber, had snapped. He retied it to the chain using a rolling hitch; the stainless steel hook we normally used had dropped from the chain to the sea bed. With the next gust Bandit somehow freed herself from the coral and the graunch sound stopped. Relief washed over us.
At 1am our Australian friends anchored behind us, were alerted by their neighbours that they appeared to be dragging. Steve, the skipper, came on VHF and said he would try to re-anchor. Twenty minutes later he said their anchor chain had broken and all he could do was motor until first light.
As the wind continued to gust, he battled to control Amiable, his Amel 54, and gave us all some anxious moments as he narrowly avoided colliding with other boats, including us. He was obviously struggling to see and, over the VHF, he asked boats to turn on their running lights as he could barely see anchor lights at the mastheads.
David wanted to call on VHF and suggest he go stern-to the wind - a technique he'd learned years ago. When the boat's stern is into wind, it acts like a weather vane and, with revs on, you can sit there for ages. Steve appeared to be doing the opposite - trying to keep his bow into wind - but it kept blowing off. We discussed it, but figured the less chat on VHF the better and we were already busy monitoring our own situation.
We watched with growing concern as Steve's yacht appeared to be blown further away in the gusts and then, with despair, heard Steve come on VHF to say he was on a reef.
The next few hours were a nightmare. A calm, gently spoken American cruiser took control as we mounted a VHF vigil. The American talked Steve and Liz through their options logically, telling them not to abandon ship which was their gut instinct. "Put all your valuables into dry bags in the cockpit and wait for first light." All good advice but it was only 3am. Dawn was hours away.
Steve gave his GPS position which we plotted on the chart. He was against a shallow reef and in no immediate danger of sinking or drifting into deep water. It was impossible to mount any rescue attempt in the atrocious conditions; the wind was screaming and pushing up a choppy swell.
The darkness seemed all-enveloping. The tension in the anchorage was palpable. Every time I looked out at the yacht on the reef, lit up with deck lights, the waves were crashing more intensely over her bow. What if she was pushed off the reef into deep water - how would we rescue them? What if she broke up?
"That could be us," I kept thinking. Bandit is our home and full of treasures collected over our eight years of cruising in the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Central America, East Coast of the US and the Pacific. It would be unbearable to lose her.
More bad news came. Panicked, Steve came on VHF: they were taking on water through the rudder post, and the bilge pumps were not keeping up. He was told to stuff towels, pillows, bedding and anything else in the hole; keep all the pumps running and start bailing.
Soon Steve reported holes appearing in the hull. The aft cabin and saloon were filling with water. "I really think we need to get off," he said.
The amazingly cool American disagreed. "The water level inside the boat will not rise higher than the water level outside and you still have plenty of freeboard." Incredibly sensible advice; why hadn't we figured that out?
At first light, Suwarrow station ranger Harry Papai was roused and set off in his aluminium boat to rescue a much shaken couple. David went ashore to see what he could do. The priority was retrieving possessions so he donned a wetsuit and reef shoes and headed out to help.
Steve and Liz were still visibly shaken when they came aboard Bandit later that day to send emails to family and their insurance company, drink copious amounts of tea and relate what had been the most terrifying ordeal of their lives. They had been trying to head out of the anchorage into deeper water when a 40 knot gust blew them onto the reef, Steve said. The experience left Liz so traumatised she left on the first cruising yacht heading to American Samoa for a flight to Australia.
Over the next few days as conditions abated, we helped Steve salvage a mountain of gear. Batteries, diesel, sails, ropes, food, all interior fittings including oven and washing machine, clothes and electrics were removed and taken ashore. David even dismounted winches; diesel was pumped from the main tanks. The big fear was polluting this beautiful lagoon. It was a mammoth task and the cruising community rallied to help.
Eventually we felt we'd done all we could and, wanting to leave Suwarrow with good memories we took time out to go snorkelling with manta rays and explore the wonderful coral reefs around the anchorage. As if on cue two humpback whales swam into the anchorage and right around the boats - we sat and watched with awe. The weather was clear and sunny, and as we looked across the flat calm anchorage it seemed unbelievable such drama had unfolded here in this piece of Pacific paradise.
Sadly this wasn't the first boat to come to grief here. Caretaker Harry said he knew of eight boats resting in the lagoon. And until the authorities put down moorings, no doubt more will meet a sticky end.