To begin the tale of what may could have been the most critical of my ocean passages, I need to reset the stage. I hesitantly prepare myself for this task by forcing my mind back to recall the shock to my system that still rang within me from the week before when Mabrouka’s mooring broke and she pounded for over an hour on the nearby reef.
This happened just inside the south pass at Fakarava, one of the myriad atolls in the Tuamotu archipelago that stretches in a wide swath above and to the right of Tahiti. The currents that sweep the pass clear of silt and plankton on the incoming tide and make a drift dive through its coral canyons as close to a wingsuit flight as I ever care to get, also sweep the sand out of the nearby anchorage. That leaves a beautiful but jagged coral bottom that is a forbidding place to drop an anchor for any but either the most intrepid or the most foolish of cruisers. To provide convenient access to this, one of the premier diving destinations in the world while protecting the coral from the damaging effects of anchors and chain, the French Polynesian authorities have installed six or seven government-owned mooring balls just inside and to the northeast of the pass.
Doing a drift dive through Fakarava South Pass was one of, if not my primary goal for getting back to the Tuamotos. Both I and my crew, Danielle, were totally stoked to have the opportunity. In retrospect I suppose I could have found a sandy spot to drop the hook farther away from the pass, but my dinghy is small and boasts only a 3.5 horsepower motor, so mooring as close to the pass as possible made it much less of a trial to dinghy against the incoming tide to the dive tour operators’ docks perched within the pass itself. With this strategy in mind, we proceeded to grab the closest mooring buoy we could get and ended up with only one boat between us and the reef.
I would love to share the fantastic time we had in our two dives flying over the vast, multihued forests of coral and through schools of sharks, but that’s not the intent of this post. Instead, I will reproduce part of what I wrote to my family about that night, August 3, 2018, when our mooring ball failed.
Danielle and I had settled in for the evening. We’d enjoyed a nice supper and cleaned up afterwards, with each of us drifting off into our own entertainments. I was reading a book and Danielle was writing in her diary. It was blustery out, but only uncomfortable in that the breeze was blowing from the northeast. It was gusting into the low twenty knot range and, even though we were inside the atoll, there was enough fetch to generate a short chop that had Mabrouka jerking against the mooring ball. I’d already gone forward to check the line and to add chafing gear, so I felt secure enough that I was shocked out of my reading by a loud bang from the bow. Still a little baffled by the noise, I leapt up from my seat and hustled up to the helm when I heard the anchor alarm go off. We’d broken free of our mooring somehow. I started the engine right away and called Danielle up to help.
Looking around to assess our situation, the catamaran on the mooring ball immediately downwind from us was still a safe distance away, but closing fast, so I began to maneuver away from her. What happened next is a blur, but in any case I was disoriented enough in the dark that I’d failed to recognize what direction the reef threatened from or how far away it was and the next thing I knew we were upon it.
Relating the incident and my personal hurt to my family in an email a couple of days later, I tried to describe what it felt like when Mabrouka was on the reef:
…there are no single words, perhaps not even combinations that convey the sensation. Not jolt or bang, not shock or even explosion. Rattle? Grind? Shudder? I try to imagine a single phrase to evoke what it must be like in the calamitous instant of impact in a car crash, of a suicide vest exploding, of an aneurysm bursting. There’s a reason why our brains refuse to remember such moments. If they have an afterwards, they exist only as voids of consciousness, incomprehensibly sudden, deep, dark, black holes of nothingness. Gone. Those instants are just gone. We struggle to remember them. We struggle to forget them.
Yes, events horrible to contemplate, but take just one step back from them and you might begin to feel what Mabrouka felt like on the reef a few nights ago. Each time her keel pounded on the coral it was as if someone was shaking her and through her, me. Not by grabbing my shoulders and giving me hell, though, by reaching down to my very bones with iron fists and rattling me from the skeleton out. My bones were connected to Mabrouka’s bones. There was no cushion between us, …not of flesh, not of distance.
Several of the local cruising boats responded almost immediately to my may day call in their dinghies. One of the dive boats heard my plea as well and came out to help. Cruising friends aboard SV Caramba about five miles away also heard the call and got in touch with Tahiti Search and Rescue. Once SAR was told no one’s life was in danger, they said, “Bonne nuit et bonne chance.” Luckily we didn’t need their help.
It took about an hour and a half to muscle Mabrouka off the reef, tugging and pushing and pulling with three dinghies and the dive boat. Eventually we ran a line from the catamaran that was still moored to the ball that had been down wind of us. Now we were downwind of her and she was well positioned to apply some extra pull with her main engine.
Eternity dragged on and it felt like we weren’t making any progress at all, but the pull from the catamaran seemed to make the difference. We must have gotten enough power applied in the right direction that Mabrouka finally ground free. I was relieved to find that I had both power and steerage. After ensuring that we had no trailing lines to tangle around our prop, we got re-moored for the night, believe it or not to another one of the mooring buoys that had already been so treacherous. Frankly, I was in no shape to battle the wind and the dark to muster my wits and find a clear patch of sand to anchor in amidst the coral.
Through all of that I felt like I’d kept my cool fairly well. I’d had to stop and tell myself to think a few times, to assess where the coral heads were that were hanging us up, where I should tell my rescuers to push or pull, what I should do with Mabrouka’s engine and steering, how and where to secure tow lines. Early on I’d had Danielle pull up the floorboards in the main salon to check for flooding. Nothing, and I will forever be thankful for Mabrouka’s unbelievably stout hull.
I snorkeled the hull the next morning as soon as there was light. The entire bottom of the keel and the lower extent of the rudder’s trailing edge were pretty much scrubbed bare of paint and gel coat right down to the fiberglass. There was deep gouging here and there, but nothing that threatened to flood the hull. As a matter of fact, there was only one small scrape up around the turn of the bilge, so we had never been in any danger of sinking. The rudder felt solid and did not, upon that first brief inspection, seem to have suffered anything more than cosmetic damage. With power to the propeller and control of the rudder, I announced that I still felt fairly secure aboard my stalwart Mabrouka.
There’s a whole other story here, but later that morning Danielle announced that she did NOT consider Mabrouka to be safe and had already made tentative arrangements to move to another boat. As untimely as it was to find myself sailing solo, between being upset about the previous night’s horrors and ongoing personality conflicts with her, I just boiled over. I completely shut down any explanation that Danielle might have offered and became adamant that she should get out of my sight as soon as possible. I sat in Mabrouka’s cockpit and steamed while she packed her stuff. She was gone in less than half an hour.
Over the following few days I moved the boat toward repairs, first motoring without any difficulty at all the scant five nautical miles northeast inside the atoll to the anchorage at Hirifa, then another dozen or so to Pakokota Lodge and Yacht Services about halfway up the northeastern side of the atoll. Matthieu, who runs the place, is a ex-commercial diver with a reputation as a fixit guy among cruisers, so I had hopes of devising and effecting temporary repairs with his help.
Safe and sound on another mooring ball (No, I guess I do NOT learn, but Pakokota’s moorings do have an impeccable reputation), I dove the rudder again to see what needed to be done to boost my confidence that Mabrouka was safe going back to sea. This time I noted that the rudder pintle-gudgeon (ie hinge) assemblies had been displaced a bit when the rudder itself had been pounded upward by the reef. The system still felt solid, but I called Matthieu out for a second opinion. When he dove it, he noted a finger-width gap between the bottom of the gudgeons and the fiberglass of the keel. Oops!
It wasn’t anything that we could repair with Mabrouka in the water, so over the next several days I designed and Matthieu fabricated a brace to keep the pintle-gudgeon assemblies from falling off.
When I think of all this buildup, my stated purpose of writing about the transit back to Papeete seems like a let down. Indeed, all’s well that ends well and there’s nothing better than anticipating an arduous adventure that turns out to be dull and boring. Indeed, I eliminated much of the possible excitement with my next decision.
One repair option I had was to make my way to the carenage (boat yard) inside Apataki atoll some fifty miles away. I’d been in touch with them by email and they’d said they could haul Mabrouka out there and, pending inspection, probably effect at least temporary repairs. Several things made me uncomfortable about this. Tony, who runs the carenage, has a good enough reputation, but I was still concerned about having to rely upon only one resource for the necessary craftsmanship. Second, I wanted to do only some of the repair there. I just was not anxious to do the extensive fiberglass and paint work necessary in a remote location with all the potential delays and costs of getting materials shipped from Papeete. Finally, and the point on which I made my final decision, going to Apataki would necessitate a course that would take Mabrouka within a few miles reach of some of the most treacherous reefs in the world for well over half the transit. That was a scary enough prospect with a wonky rudder that I decided to brave the 235 mile open ocean passage instead. If my rudder failed at sea, I could still make some steerage under sail and would probably have enough leeway to call for towing assistance.
I’d been watching the weather for a two or three-day period of calm to settle in over the channel between the Tuamotus and Tahiti. Timing got a little tight with Matthieu’s fabrication of the brace, but I was able to move to Roatava in the northernmost corner of the atoll in time to stage a midnight departure out of Fakarava’s north pass on August 13th.
After a slap-dash meal (making sure of plenty of left-overs to limit having to cook in transit) and a few hours nap, I hoisted my anchor about 11pm on the 13th. No, not a Friday. There was no moon and it was dark as pitch. Even the stars couldn’t keep me company because it was largely overcast, but I kept an eye on the chart plotter, had the radar on, and made frequent checks of the AIS (Automatic Identification System) display on my VHF radio. I would normally not even consider transiting inside a Tuamotan atoll without a bow watch, much less at night, but I’d moved between the Roatava anchorage to and through Fakarava’s north pass several times during daylight, so proceeded with careful, if nervous confidence. The real risk was of the potentially treacherous tidal race through the pass itself, but I’d checked with one of the local dive shops and they’d said slack tide would be at midnight. I’d set my departure time accordingly and the prediction held true.
I won’t go deeply into it now because I’ve described the feeling extensively before, but it’s an eerie thing to move through the dark in waters where there are sharp, hard, underwater bits lurking all around you. A wise sailor never fully trusts his or her electronic senses and the lights, having become your only ties to the hidden world of reefs and other boats, can fail or drift away. Even though one’s eyes and ears strive for their peak acuity, the distance to a single light shining out of the dark is hard to judge. Still, you move on trusting in your experience and skill and senses.
My radar told me some large ship was anchored between the first channel marker and the pass. I could see its house lights and AIS identified it as the National Geographic adventure cruise ship Orion, so I hailed them on the VHF to confirm they were not underway. I knew they weren’t, but was really just reaching out for one last reassuringly human voice before setting off into open water. I think I only spotted two other vessels during the entire transit to Tahiti.
I remember that as I turned left and settled onto my course for Papeete, the familiar constellation of Scorpio had emerged from the now patchy cloud cover to dive steadily toward the western horizon, its venomous spike held high in the sky before me as one of the Perseid meteors arced overhead. Was it an omen, I wondered. I felt confident in Mabrouka’s seaworthiness and anticipated gentle seas for the coming days and nights, but still…
Through that night and the coming dawn, into the next day and evening, the weather held as predicted with calm seas and five to ten knots of southeasterly breeze. I’d set the autopilot, but no sails, thinking to keep the absolute minimum load on the rudder and it’s questionable attachment to the keel. At my usual average cruising speed of five knots this 235 nautical mile trip would take me barely shy of two full days. I was keeping the speed down because I thought it wise not to fully trust my temporary repairs, not to mention that the brace we’d made set up a terrible hum if I got much above four and a half knots. Slack tide at Fakarava North Pass had dictated the midnight departure, and at a reduced speed of four knots I should arrive at Point Venus, Tahiti’s northernmost point, smack dab in the middle of August’s sixteenth day. Taking the extra time seemed prudent and an afternoon arrival at port suited me just fine. The days would pass with naps and reading and tending to Mabrouka’s whims.
Early the second morning, though, the weather decided to be contrary. While it was good for sailing, however, I was still motoring and the rising seas were not very good for reducing loads on the rudder. The autopilot had to continuously correct course for swells that came from first one direction, then another. Not only that, but Mabrouka has trouble maintaining way through rough water when under power, so both our heading and our speed had become erratic. There was nothing for it but to hoist sail on Wednesday morning, so up went the mizzen and out went the genny. Mabrouka is definitely more powerful under sail and, with her rig balanced, has little need for steering, so up too went our speed and I was now anticipating arrival at Point Venus a good six hours earlier, Thursday morning just about sun up.
All in all, things went very well. I had to hand steer through the rough water from time to time, but could still manage to rest a fair amount. It had actually turned out to be quite an enjoyable sail. Early on the third morning, Scorpio was once again brandishing its tail before me, but this time the spike was diving into the sea, a threat no more. As a matter of fact, the sight ushered in several hours of wonderful sailing with Mabrouka surging towards the safety of port. The glow of Tahiti grew steadily in the west as dawn made its approach and the flash of the Point Venus light served up a hearty welcome. The sky was well-lit as I rounded into Matavai Bay, once again to hang out with the memories of Charles Darwin and Captains Cook and Bligh. I dropped the hook in lake-calm waters and managed to stay awake long enough to check in with the Magellan Cruisers’ Net at 8 am, announcing my safe arrival.
Later that afternoon I dove the hull again to check how the rudder had fared during the crossing. One of the tie rods seemed a little loose, but everything was fine otherwise. I’d also noticed that my main mast shrouds were slack. I’m glad I hadn’t noticed it before because, when I checked below, I found that pounding on the reef had jarred the main mast down so hard that it had broken the mast step. I might never have left Fakarava if I’d known that, but here’s an instance where I’m glad to fall back on the axiom that all’s well that ends well.
At this point I want to give a hearty thanks and three resounding huzzahs to the Magellan Net. This informal organization of dedicated cruisers broadcasts on single-sideband radio twice a day, every day, taking calls from cruisers as far as its little radio arms will reach, at times from New Zealand to Hawaii. Those at sea are carefully tracked by latitude and longitude and the Net faithfully reaches out to them twice a day until they report themselves safe at the end of their journey. I am guilty of taking the Mag Net for granted when I, myself, am safely in port, not being sociable enough to participate in their daily check-ins and social chatter. When I’m at sea, though, it’s a different matter and I rely on them to keep tabs on my progress and my landfalls on behalf of the outside world. This time I am especially indebted to them, to all the cruisers both in port and at sea who took great interest in my plight, offering many helpful suggestions and good wishes for safe travels. They are an invaluable service to the cruising community in the South Pacific.
I’ve now been back in Papeete for over a month. Some of that time has been spent with a much-needed get away to visit family and friends back in the real world, but the rest has been sporadically taken up trying to make arrangements for repairs. I’d set September 18th as the date to put Mabrouka on the hard before I left, but a port strike has put the kibosh on that for now. I expect to be working on her for at least three weeks with extensive fiberglass work on the keel, repairing the rudder and pintle-gudgeon assemblies, pulling the mast and rebuilding the mast step, then doing new bottom paint. Look for an update post to show what all was involved in removing and repairing the rudder assembly.
[Explanatory note for the non-sailor: The phrase “on the hard” refers to having one’s boat out of the water, usually in a repair or storage yard. A used in the caption for this post, it obviously means something entirely different.]