Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tuamotus: the dangerous Archipelago

I nearly lost the ship on a Tuamotu reef.

After a 500 nautical mile crossing from Nuku Hiva we sighted Takaroa. This gorgeous atoll in the middle of nowhere is unseen by most. The pass to get into the inner lagoon is far too dangerous for most cruisers, as currents in the narrow pass can get up to ten knots.
One minor mistake could turn Echo into toothpicks, but I had decided to attempt it anyway. I was, and remain confident in my ship and her crew.

After psyching myself up for navigating the pass, it went extremely well. I stayed in control of Echo at all times, and didn't even have a close call. However, it was after navigating the pass that I made a decision that could have cost me my ship and my pride.

It must be said that the charts in these areas are unreliable on a good day. Navigation must be done by sight, in the middle of the day so that underwater dangers can be seen clearly. As I motored to my anchorage I found that the sun was in my eyes, leaving me unable to properly survey the surrounding water.

I found what looked to be a good spot to drop the hook, so I let it loose and allowed Echo to drift back while I paid out the heavy chain. Good spots weren't easy to come by, the anchorage being dotted with black pearl farms. After paying out enough chain, I went back to the vessel's cockpit only to notice that we were far too close to a reef once we had drifted back on our chain. It was decided that we should move further away, and that's when things started to get interesting.

A bit too close to a lee shore
Darkness, a storm, and exhaustion were fast approaching. I went forward to weigh anchor, which is no easy task on my vessel. Echo doesn't have a windlass, I couldn't bear the thought of cutting a hole in her 55 year old original decks to install some new fancy toy simply for convenience. I haul our 22 kilo (45 lb) bruce by hand. Put 50 meters (160 ft or so) of chain on top of that (weighing 120 kilos) and it can be a difficult job. Regardless, I began to haul in the chain until I reached a point where I could haul no more. No matter how hard I pulled, it wouldn't budge. I questioned my judgement in not installing a windlass. I questioned my own personal fortitude and physical strength. I questioned whether or not we could get out of this mess.

My arms were turning limp, I had used all of my strength and the chain would budge no more. Even Echo's diesel couldn't move the chain. We were stuck, and in very close proximity to a shallow reef. The wind was now howling at well over 30 knots, and rain was coming down in buckets. At just this moment, Echo's diesel stopped running. I screamed out a mixture of obscenities and hopeless wishes. I thought that would be it, Without the assistance of her diesel Echo would swing onto the reef. I was racing back and forth, barking out instructions to a scared but otherwise calm crewmember. As quickly as possible we set out a stern anchor and kept Echo from destroying herself on the rocks. The stern anchor held well, and we were safe.

There are lessons to be learned from this event. Firstly, it is important to always have the sun directly overhead or at your back when navigating by sight. I had calculated that the sun would be on my back when entering the pass, the task that I was most concerned about, but had not taken into account that it would be in my eyes when approaching the anchorage. This simple oversight caused me to anchor dangerously close to a lee shore. Secondly, I chose an anchorage that was too exposed to the wind and sea. I could have easily anchored outside the pass, leaving the entire atoll of Takaroa to block the breezes and sea. I was too eager to explore inside the lagoon, and in doing so I exposed us to unnecessary risks. Taking unnecessary risks is a fool's task out here in the big blue, and I don't plan on playing the fool more than once.

1 comment:

  1. Hey rob its nia and jon on onlychild. yes it is the dangerous place. While sailing across tahanea we hit the only coral head in 30sq miles from 200 ft of water at 7knots. The boat fared super well as i added keel bolts before we left. Anyway I we're in tahiti now and its very nice. Hope all is well with you. I wanted your email as i wanted to ak you about obtaining a seamans book so we can book flights with GMT super cheep. Anyway i'm I hope to hear from you soon

    Fair winds,
    Jon and Nia