Our beautiful swan, Anthea, was helplessly caught in the jaws of the wolf. The reef clutched her keel, rudder, and skeg, refusing to let go. The wind and waves pushed her harder and harder on the reef, enabling the wolf to get a firmer grip on her. The grinding, grating sounds of our swan as the big bad wolf tossed her about in his jaws made us sick to our stomachs. Would we be able to pull our precious Anthea from the clutches of this impassive creature before she was mortally wounded? We were all alone on the remote east coast of Viti Levu – no one to call for assistance. How much time did we have? Could we do it?
The ten or so minutes after the sickening CRUNCH and LURCH of Anthea when we first hit the reef seemed like an eternity. We were going dead downwind; Kim and I were in the cockpit, Anson and Devon down below. Adrenalin immediately began pumping through all of us. I jumped to release the mainsheet; Anson and Devon sprang up the ladder and with Kim began to get the main down to reduce the ability of the wind to drive us up on the reef (the jib was already furled). With Kim and Devon pulling from the deck, Anson had to climb onto the boom to release the sail’s battens which caught on the leeward lazy jack as the sail came down. Knowing that each second counted, they hurriedly tried to fold in Anthea’s wing, bringing it down and close in to her body. I started Mr. Perkins, hoping against hope that there was a small window of opportunity to reverse Anthea off the reef. Almost immediately the prop caught on the coral and stalled the engine – what a fool I was to think it could be that easy and now what damage had I caused to the prop, shaft, or strut?
Without discussing anything, we immediately jumped to plan B, which was now our only hope for a quick release from the wolf’s clutches (Kim had shouted through her tears that the tide was rising – but this was small consolation given the grinding, crunching sounds reverberating throughout our dear boat every moment). Anson, Devon and I sprang forward to the dinghy and quickly as possible lifted and eased it into the water. Anson jumped into it while I scampered aft, loosened the outboard from the aft pulpit, and, dispensing with our usual halyard hoist system, manhandled it over the lifelines to Anson. Of course, the engine cover came off in the process. But Anson managed to receive the engine plus loose cover and secure it to the dinghy’s transom. But now the dinghy was floating away as in our haste we had not tied the painter to Anthea. I jumped overboard, grabbed the dinghy and got back on Anthea so fast that I hardly got wet, then I got back in the dinghy with Anson. We got the gas can into the dinghy, hooked up the fuel line and started the outboard. Meanwhile Devon had grabbed our anchor chain snubber (a stout dockline), secured it to the bow cleat and was readying it to throw to us for a tow line. A few seconds of deliberation and we realized it was probably better to tow our stricken swan from the stern, to minimize damage to her rudder, skeg and propeller. Anson roared to Devon to take the line off the bow cleat and instead secure it to the stern cleat (Anson’s roar is quite impressive); Devon hopped aft fast and nimbly, and Kim and he rapidly secured the line and threw it to us. Anson tied the line to a bridle he had quickly prepared on dinghy’s transom. He roared again, this time to me – “full throttle.” Would our 8 horsepower Nissan outboard be able to wrench our 12 ton swan from the jaws of the wolf? How tightly did the wolf clench her body? We held our breaths.
The towline tightened and grew taught, the outboard was roaring at full throttle, its propeller churning a mass of whitewater. The dinghy slewed from side to side as it pulled against the line; there seemed to be no forward movement. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, we could tell that Anthea’s stern was coming toward us, away from the reef. Just writing this, days later, brings tears of relief to my eyes.
Kim at the helm, had started the engine and, once a few feet from the reef, put Mr. Perkins in reverse. “Do you have steerage?” I shouted. “Yes, I think I do,” she responded. Oh my gosh, could we really be that fortunate? I thought to myself. Yes, it seemed that we were. Kim was able to reverse the propeller and steer Anthea upwind and away from the reef. Anson and I brought the dinghy alongside, climbed aboard and secured the dinghy to Anthea’s stern.
We motored into the bay we had earlier identified for spending the night. Anson scampered up to the second spreader and from that commanding height called out a course into our chosen anchorage. Kim was extremely concerned about hitting coral again, especially as the chart indicated that we were on top of reef even though we could see that we were motoring through clear water towards the anchorage. Once anchored and in the fading light of early evening, Anson and Devon donned mask, fins and snorkel and jumped overboard to assess damage. Kim and I were on pins and needles, especially when we heard Anson’s muffled curse through his snorkel. After their first reconnoiter, Anson went down again with the Gopro to document the damage.
Given the potential for major damage, we had dodged a bullet: a quarter-sized chunk of lead slightly displaced from the keel’s leading edge where we first hit, a 5 inch square patch of exposed lead on the left side of the keel halfway up from the bottom of the keel, some more scratches on the bottom just forward of the keel, and abrasions on the bottom of the skeg and rudder. No cracks along the keel-hull joint, nor around the rudder and skeg areas. We breathed sighs of relief – this was damage we could repair ourselves when we haul out next month at Vuda Pt. Marina. Though we all felt somewhat traumatized, and tears of relief did continue a bit, we agreed that we were extremely fortunate to have gotten off so lightly.
Of course, that evening, we analyzed what had happened. How had lifelong sailors, who take pride in being risk- averse and safety conscious, hit a reef? The truth of the matter is that we had become complacent. We had had a marvelous sail earlier in the day from Levuka (the historic capital of Fiji, now a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the century’s old buildings on the town’s waterfront) on Ovalu Island across to Viti Levu Island. We romped across the channel between the two islands at eight knots, Anson and Kim sharing the helm and me on lookout at the bow. Once we got to Viti Levu, we sailed north towards our destination, Nananu-i-Thake Island (where we were returning for kiteboarding). The east coast of Viti Levu is dramatic and beautiful. The coastal waters are strewn with reefs – all of which showed up on our charts, as had the reefs we traversed earlier in the day. Although Fiji’s charts are infamous for inaccuracy, we began to wonder if our electronic charts were accurate, after all; a conclusion made more plausible by the knowledge that our charts had been revised based on analysis of satellite imagery. It was late afternoon, at the end of a long day. We dropped our guard and did not have a lookout posted. We had identified a bay to turn into for the night. We saw a charted reef, at the edge of the bay, right where the chart said it would be, and stayed a bit outside of it as we began to turn into the bay. A few minutes later we collided with a coal head where the chart indicated there was none, and thus began the saga described above. Although it was late in the afternoon and visibility less than ideal, I’m positive that if we had had a lookout at the bow, we would have seen the reef in time to avoid it.
It is with humility and gratitude that we give thanks for getting off so lightly, for being able to wrest our swan from the wolf. Hopefully we have learned our lesson and shall keep a sharp lookout when navigating through waters where the charts are known to be inaccurate.
25 June 2018
(we hit the reef several days prior, on June 15)