Another lucky chance. Thank goodness, the Man
upstairs is looking our for us.
"We have 45 knots and 5 meter seas!" "I am turning
back to Fiji!" "A huge wave just came down the companionway! The
autopilot is broken and several of our electronics are damaged with
saltwater." "We just lost our headstay!"
These were the radio reports being heard by my owners as we were sailing
toward New Zealand from Tonga. I found these reports a little
difficult to believe as I had been sailing along for 3 days with 15-20 knots of
wind on my beam, clear, sunny skies and having a great time. Bob and Judi
listened to the reports with great interest and apprehension as these boats were
about 300 miles ahead of us and we were heading in that direction. I
thought, "OK - what's the big deal? After all, this is the kind of
weather I am built to handle", but my owners had different thoughts. It
turned out we were close to a place called South Minerva Reef, so they decided
to head for it and wait for the weather further south to improve.
I looked at the reef, and thought, what in the world are they thinking
now? Are they going to try to anchor me in the middle of the ocean - where
is the island!?" Then I spotted a Tongan fishing boat and
thought - OK maybe this isn't so bad, maybe I could make friends with
them. Bob pulled out an old chart and steered us through the opening in
the reef while Judi stood watch on the bow. Just as they dropped the
anchor, the crew from the fishing boat came over to trade 2 gigantic lobsters
for a bit of rum from my owners. My crew was happy enough to make the trade and
Judi started the pot boiling for a dinner. I could hear the lobsters
scampering around in my cockpit being chased by an ice pick-wielding Bob,
oblivious of their unfortunate fate. That night as they feasted on
lobster, I had a chance to look around at my surroundings. It was a bit eerie,
as we were basically anchored in the middle of the ocean with a rim of coral
surrounding us and protecting us from the big ocean swells, but small ones did
managed to make it over at high tide. The coral and fish around me were
plentiful and some of the most colorful that I have seen.
The next day, the wind switched, so Bob decided we should move to a more
"secure" location. Up with my anchor and we cautiously motored
over to the other side of the reef with Judi keeping careful watch for "bommies"
on the bow. What luck, they found a nice sandy shelf of about 10 feet on
which to drop the anchor. The shelf did drop off rather sharply, but the
anchor seemed dug in when we backed down on it with the engine, so we believed
we were fine.
We then settled in and waited for my boat buddy, "Pacific Voyager,"
to arrive as they too were coming in to wait for weather to clear. Both
boats agreed to keep on an anchor light as the nights were very dark and there
was no landmark for a point of reference, as there was no land.
That night we were all awoken by the sound of thunder, and squally winds as the
trailing edge of the front causing the bad weather further south crossed our
location. As Bob went out to check on Pacific Voyager, I heard him yell,
"The anchor is dragging - we're moving!" The wind pushed
me backwards at about 3 knots, and I saw sharp, jagged edges of huge
coral heads come within inches of my keel. Just when I thought, OK,
this is it! - the chain became taunt, stopping my movement. For the
moment, we all heaved a huge sigh or relief, but the danger was not yet over as
the squalls continued and we had no idea when or if we would start dragging
again. Bob and Judi set up an "anchor watch", with
Bob defining a small anchor area on our radar and both of them taking turns to
ensure that we were still in that area, although, I don't know what they would
have done, if the anchor had come loose again.
That was a LONG night, but by first light, the squalls were gone - in fact,
there wasn't a breath of wind now. Bob started the engine and we carefully
motor forward, as Judi took in the anchor chain. That's when we all
discovered how close I came to ending up as part of the coral reef - just
the tip of my anchor was wedged in the top of a coral head. With my anchor
again, on board, they motored over to Pacific Voyager and dropped both my
CQR and Danforth anchors, this time in a 40 ft. patch of sand, clear of all
coral. Bob dove in to check and make sure they were well dug in and we all
cautiously relaxed, snorkeled and waited another 3 days until the gales between
us and New Zealand cleared out. We waited a total of 5 days in
Minerva Reef, before we were again on our way. Except for 2 days of 30-35
knot winds, the rest of the trip was uneventful and we even had to motor the
last 3 days into the Bay of Islands as there was no wind.
- Do NOT drop anchor on a shallow shelf that drops sharply off
into deep water.
- Consider using two anchors when anchored in a risky location.
- Without land, there are no landmarks or reference points at
night with which to determine if you have moved. The only point
of reference we had was the anchor light on Pacific Voyager and if
they had not been there, we would have had no way to visually
determine where the edge of the reef was.
- Do not anchor alone in a risky location. Always try to
have at least one other boat around. We were not going to go
into the reef if the Tongan fishing boat had not been there. The
day they left, our friends on Pacific Voyager joined us and we both
stayed together until the weather cleared.
- Whenever possible, always check the anchor with snorkel gear.
It is a bit of a nuisance, but it definitely gives you peace of mind
and a restful night's sleep.
- The decision to stop and wait for weather was the right
decision. The dragging of the anchor was a mistake in our
anchoring technique, not in the decision to stop. Several
cruisers sustained serious damage to their boats and equipment in that
gale which lasted for about a week. Unfortunately, when the
weather turned bad, they did not have the choice to stop.
- Use of the radar for an anchor watch. We were able to
define a circular area around us on the radar as a boundary. If
we left that boundary, an alarm would sound and we would know that we
had dragged. (This was before GPS selective-availability was
switched off and we could not trust our GPS.)
- Use GPS (now that selective-availability is turned off) as an
- If we had not been able to stop, we would have tried to heave-to in
our present location until the gales cleared After first
ensuring that we would drift away from the reef, we had plenty
of sea-room as we were about 100 miles from the nearest land.
[Read my next story about a BIG wave]