I'm writing this out on paper this morning, because our computer battery is on its last legs (hey Mac, what's the deal with needing to have spare batteries PROFESSIONALLY INSTALLED by a MAC store, and why didn't you tell us that WHEN we bought the spare battery????) and we won't be able to recharge today (the forty knot winds have our solar panels stashed away and the sideways rain means no Honda generator on deck), the boat is hobby-horsing and bucking on the fetch that's come spitting through the pass at us...but we are lucky.
Two boats were lost last night in the Atoll nearest us--Apataki.
Close enough to hear them on the VHF but powerless to help, we were unable to do anything but listen...
A scared and desperate, women's voice;
her boat name and then...
"May-Day, May-day, Apataki!!!"
Her distress cry was met with dead silence.
Jon and I stood, dripping wet and shivering in our underwear.
The wind was now howling like a burning witch,
and Pura Vida pitched and surged on the building fetch.
Our only light, was the campy, orange-glow cast off from the VHF.
Supernatural, old-school horror movie shadows flickered across Jon's face.
But this wasn't make believe.
"MAY-DAY" is the last thing ever called.
It means you are losing your boat.
The silence that met her plea only meant that other captains and crews in the vicinity of the struggling boat were busy on their foredecks fighting to save their own boats from destruction...
Mooring bridles snapping like rubber bands, anchor chains fouling on coral heads, as boats bucked and shook off their shock absorbers in the roiling six foot fetch.
Apataki was not a good place to be tonight.
The vessel in distress was on her own.
When a Low forms right over you, the weather predictions don't necessarily have to play by the rules.
Whatever is happening over our little corner of the Tuamotos, right now, seems to have a mind of its own.
We expected some increased wind and heavy rains, wind shifts are normal in a front...
the thing with fronts is, they pass fairly quickly. This thing came in with the force of a front but the decided to stay on for awhile, making it behave more like a low.
Sailors caught unawares are always subject to nasty surprises but when it happens in an atoll, where there is no where to run for shelter, the fetch can build up very quickly and you are surrounded by unforgiving coral "bommies" waiting to snafu your best laid ground tackle...
things can turn deadly....
We had all gone ashore about 8:30 yesterday morning. It was raining lightly and the winds were indicating what was predicted on the grib files we downloaded before breakfast. Hunter raked leaves for Valentine and gathered coconut husks from the pig pens to be burned in the daily bonfires to clear trash and debris. Kai gamely chased a half-wild and starving mother pig and her piglets into an empty pen--where she could be fed cared for, while her children were eaten by visiting cruisers. The pig was not at all happy about this plan (understandably) and she and her piglets scattered in all directions. In the end, they were no match for the wild, long-haired, eleven-year-old-boy, carrying a big stick and thrilled beyond measure at being ordered to chase something other than his little sister through a jungle.
Jon lathed piles of wood into planks for a roof, while I split coconuts with an axe. Gaston then asked Kai (to his everlasting joy) to hunt up a rooster (they roam wild on the atoll) and shoot it with a pellet gun so it could be fed (with my freshly split coconuts) to the starving mother pig. Her babies need to be fattened on tasty milk for a fete- I secretly hope its not for my up-coming birthday or I would feel terribly about all this.
The first sign of the weather gods deciding to play a little trick was a sudden and dramatic wind shift to the North followed by an end-of-days black sky that would have sent me running for Valentine's chapel if only I was a true believer. As the sky opened up into a torrential downpour, Valentine laid out a yummy lunch for her laborers; chicken stew and raw fish salad, coconut rolls and bean and tuna salad. Kai had to be torn away from his task (tearing out a termite infested floor by attacking it with a sledge hammer), and everyone sat down to devour another one of Valentine's incredible meals.
As if on cue, as soon as lunch was finished the wind picked up to 30 knots and everyone hustled back to the boat.
In the calm before the storm, Jon had moved Pura Vida to one of Gaston's moorings. Most sailors prefer their own ground tackle to trusting someone else's but when you are surrounded by bommies and the wind is shifting it's a nice option. Plus, it protects the living reef from excess damages caused to coral by dragging chains and thunking big anchors constantly smashing the place to bits.
Jon dove our mooring and deemed it worthy and we shored up with extra lines directly shackled to the massive chain Gaston had wrapped around the huge coral head beneath us. Our concern wasn't his stuff breaking, it was the security of our lines connecting us to it.
That, and the looming coral head only six feet from our stern.
Jon dove that sucker too, while I stood on the swim ladder and judged how much room we had.
A sudden, violent wind shift swung us straight at it and I was grateful for the mere six feet we had between our rudder and it because when Jon stood on the highest part of the Bommie, the top of his head peeked out of the water. There was no way we could have cleared our skeg and rudder if not for that six feet of distance.
This was disconcerting, though. If any of our lines broke and we surged backwards, we would hit the bommie, snap off our rudder and be on the reef before you could say, "Jack Rabbit" or some other (much more likely) expression.
Jon set about hauling out our old anchor rode (rope) from the chain locker and diving the mooring again and securing that with another shackle.
We weren't going anywhere.
Unless... the wind clocked to the West and the fetch got so bad we chaffed though our own lines...
We've been in a few blows since we started this madness, three years ago
and have learned to take storm prep seriously.
Jon swims around under the boat, securing extra lines to the mooring and rigging a bridle on our dinghy painter line, so she'll trail safely behind the big boat. We lost our plug somewhere along the way and re-jiggered it with one that doesn't come out, so hauling her up on the davitts with all this rain is out of the question.
Jon does his usual routine, checking on all our neighbors moorings' as well and helping beef up their security measures.
We haven't refilled our tanks since our last dive, so he swims around with Hunter's little yellow 40 tucked under one arm, looking like good ol' Captain American quarterback-boy.
Kai trails behind him in the dinghy and Hunter and I make sure everything is stowed away on deck.
Two hours later, Jon is still in the water, the wind has picked up to 30 knots, the rain is coming down like glass shards. I am relieved to see Jon is finally swimming towards our ladder.
"Want some coffee?" I ask as he reaches the boat.
"I want my speargun..." he says from the water.
'There's tuna down there..."
30 knots and a gale be damned,
Jon and Kai spend the next two hours, in the no-visibility,
howling winds, pelting rain...
hunting for tuna.
Kai stays in the dinghy and trails behind Jon like a faithful puppy,
in the event that Jon hits a big tuna he will pull them (Jon and the fish) out of the water before the sharks get to them.
This is only a mild concern because its getting dark.
I shake my head and mutter under my breath and wonder if I should turn off the curry I'm making and make sushi rice, instead.
When it actually IS dark and I go out on deck to see what the heck is happening (yes, that nasty LOW is still totally raging) I also see that our son, following his father around in circles, is now the color of an ice popsicle. I wait for Jon to surface and give my loudest trucker-whistle when he pops his head up.
'But there's a big one..." he whines.
I cut him off with the universal "Get-your-ass-back-here" hand signal. If you married a spear-fisherman, sailor, or any other husband bent on leisure activities that occasionally make you act demented...
you will know exactly what this looks like.
Jon and Kai get back to the boat in a flash.
Things were nasty but deal-able for the first few hours but as soon as the kids went to bed, it got downright ugly. We realized this was going to be more than expected and started methodically rechecking everything we had done.
That's when the wind, which was now upwards of 40 knots, suddenly shifted again from N to NW and then to W...
This was bad news.
We had been rolling quite a bit on the wrap around swell coming into the anchorage from the North but this last shift put us on the lee shore.
Anse Amyot is protected on all sides-except this one little hole in the reef where it opens to the West.
Pura Vida started to buck like crazy on her mooring lines as the fetch increased by the minute. What had been short chop in the small anchorage now was building to something more serious...
Our great bud, Terry Kennedy, form SV Manta, had given us some good advice back in Baja when we were facing the threat of hurricane Paul (our first and only so far) roaring towards the sleepy penninsula: "Remember to check for that chaffe! Every twenty minutes! It happens faster than you can imagine!"
He would call out again and again, over the VHF as all the cruisers hunkered down in their boats to wait out the storm.
The post script on that one is that we were spared the full force of the tempest, so it amounted to nothing more than a lot of rain, some wind and a good practice run, for us.
We heeded Terry's good advice as we always do and thank goodness we did.
Our chaffe guard is some mega thick, tough as nails, length of PVC toilet hose that Jon can barely tear through with his hacksaw. No matter what we have been in before, it's always held up well.
We had checked it before the latest wind shift and everything looked honky-dory...
fifteen minutes after the increased fetch-it looked like it had been through a giant cheese grater.
Unchecked, we would have sawed though our holding lines in twenty minutes.
We had run all our lines through the chalks on our bow, because our anchor was up, and had not deployed our anchor as a secondary precaution because of how shallow we were and the forecast had not given us inclination to think we would be facing this kind of fetch.
Jon had to come up with a new plan... and fast.
I was dripping and shaking, physically willing myself to stop shivering by taking deep unjaya yoga-breaths through my nose, so I could be calm and help execute whatever Jon needed us to do.
Without talking about it, both of us were thinking about that bommie six feet behind us, and the reef not twenty feet beyond that.
While I mentally ran though my emergency "worst case" checklist for the kids; lifejackets, headlamps, and shoes-in case we ended up to that reef, Jon mentally ran though what we needed to do to make sure that wasn't gonna happen.
As Jon puzzled out a plan to get our anchor down and out of the way, re-rig our snubber and then get all our lines off our port and starboard chalks and running though our bow roller, we heard another call over the radio.
"we are on the beach!"
If you are not a sailor, you may not know that this is not a good thing, around here.
It was a French sounding voice, but not the same as we had heard earlier. Its a weird thing, how French boats never seem to answer on channel 16, so we weren't surprised to hear an American voice respond: "Is everyone safe?"
"Oui...but our boat is lost."
We recognized the American boat-we haven't met them in person but we have had many radio conversations with them over the past two weeks. All of us longed for some English speaking company but even though we were pretty near-by (as things go out here) neither of us was willing to give up their atoll to go visit the other. They are sailor/kite boarders and had chosen to stay in Apataki for the good beach take-offs and we are sailor/scuba, so wanted to stay here, with our beloved reef.
"Glad to hear that at least you are all safe," said the Americans. "We keep snapping our snubbers and are almost on the beach ourselves. Are you the boat that fired the flare?"
"not us..." came the reply.
"...that is another boat-already on the reef".
Whatever we were feeling, things in Apataki were much, much worse.
Jon and I sat in stunned silence, helplessly looking at each other.
He grabbed the radio mic but I put his hand down.
"It won't help them to talk right now" I whispered. "We'll call in the morning to check on them..."
Jon's face was heartbreaking.
He would have done anything to be able to help but we were twenty miles away...
and had our own issues to deal with.
Jon moved forward, in the pitching darkness to the foredeck.
I wrapped my Buddha beads around my wrist (sorry, Valentine) and forced myself to stay calm.
The danger (besides us sawing through our lines) was Jon getting through what he had to pull off on the foredeck and not lose any fingers or toes or suffer any other of the possible horrible injuries that could happen when trying to re-rig all our lines under the kind of force they were now under.
I flicked on the deck lights, so I could watch Jon and try to read his hand signals through the blinding rain and shrieking wind. I was also aware that everyone in the anchorage would now be alerted to our troubles-and so watching out in case things got out of control.
It was still blowing forty, as Jon balanced on the bowsprit, with a flashlight in one hand, releasing our anchor, retying our snubber, and giving me hand signals to drive forward when he was ready, so the pressure on the lines could be released enough to re-route them.
It was a harrowing thirty minutes and not without a few hitches but he pulled it off.
Jon was an absolute hero, in his Herculean efforts and calm, clear thinking.
Once we were satisfied that Pura Vida could hang on, with the lines now running smoothly over the bow roller and her chaffe guards replaced, we crawled into the bunk with only two hours to go until daylight, the wind still raging like a maniac outside.
We thought about our poor fellow sailors, standing on an unprotected beach, on this terrible night, in the middle of nowhere, their beloved boats on the reef...
and the American boat who was still out there, fighting for their lives.
Just after sunrise, they called us on the VHF.
The low was still heavy and we were all dealing with it but they had made it through the night.
Two hundred feet of chain out and only thirty feet between them and the reef.
They had six foot waves breaking over the bowsprit and according to the updated weather gribs we were now relaying to them, we were all in for at least another 24 hours of the really bad stuff.
"Well.." said their bone weary, So-Cal-sounding skipper, "I better make some coffee and get ready for it".
"Good luck, you guys..." we said,
thinking of ourselves, as well as everyone else out here,
"...Pura Vida, back to Channel 16"