Drama at French Harbour

When Gill and I were staying at Nanuana Marina on the Rio Dulce we met a great Australian couple, Nick and Andrea who were cruising with their two teenage daughters Ella and Millie. They left the Rio a few weeks after we did and arrived in Roatan a couple of days after I left for hospital. Since Gill’s departure they have been checking on our boat and communicating regularly on what’s happening at Fantasy Island, French Harbour. On one of their emails they sent a dramatic account of a rescue on the reef outside French Harbour which I thought might be interesting to people following our blog. Rob, mentioned in the text is crewing with them for this part of the voyage.

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Nick and Andrea

“Last night there was meant to be a “pot luck” (bring your own meat to barbeque and a salad or side to share) on the beach but the easterly built steadily during the afternoon, blowing at about 35knots at dusk. We have protection from the open sea due to the barrier reef but no protection from the wind. The harbour became choppy and blinding rain blocked out other boats near us. Everyone (myself included) was batching their anchors, being on a lee shore. There is very little sunset/sunrise here so therefore no real dusk. Just on nightfall the topic of conversation on the VHF radio was the fact that a few boats had clocked 51knots – it was howling.

Then, a few minutes later a call came over the radio, “attention any boats in the anchorage, I have lost steering and am on the reef. My keel is pounding on the rocks. I am a 43 foot monohull, can anyone call a tug or assist in any way?” An American Lady who is sort of a permanent resident here took control and organised a sort of work/dive boat to assist. A smaller dive boat with an 85hp outboard also headed down. We were all listening to the radio as the two boats tried to drag the monohull off the reef. The breeze dropped to about 20knots so Rob and I took the opportunity to scoot to shore to pick up Robs bag which contained the meat for the barbeque which was not going to happen now. Still in our tender having arrived back at Muneera we heard a not so good conversation over the radio. A female voice was shrieking for a knife to cut a rope and then “we are tipping, we are tipping, we are over, the boat is over, the boat is up side down”. We grabbed a couple of buckets, told the kids (all four of them) to monitor the radio, Andrea jumped into our tender as well and the three of us zoomed off into the black.

It took us a little while to find the yacht which was still on the reef but just on the edge, mostly floating. I was surprised to see only one boat assisting, a sort of work boat with an inboard engine, about 20 feet long, with only one guy on board. There was a man and a woman on the yacht and the work boat was trying to get close enough to grab a tow line from the yacht but was having trouble. We gunned it to the yacht and asked what we could do. The couple were clearly flustered so Rob jumped onboard, headed to the bow and sorted the line out, passing the end to Andrea. We motored backwards in our tender (better steering under load) and managed to pull the bow of the yacht around and therefore creating enough length in the line to pass it to the work boat. I motored back to the yacht and asked the guy what else we could do. He asked me to check on the other boats that were helping him and pointed into the black. Rob stayed on the yacht to help with the tow as the yacht had no steering, Andrea and I headed toward a light against a black shore line.

Approaching at speed and I thought I noticed someone in the water beside the boat ahead of me and quickly slowed down. There was another work boat similar to the one we had just left and beside it was a narrow dive boat, about 18 feet long with three or four rows of seats, on its side, completely submerged, with three people on the work boat trying to right it with lines and two people in the water on the other side of the submerged dive boat. I drove around to the other side and jumped onto the work boat while Andrea did the same, tying our tender to the rear of the work boat. With Andrea’s and my help we managed to right the dive boat and hold it upright, beside the work boat, albeit submerged, while the work boat drove slowly to the Roatan Yacht Club which is situated on a sort of canal and is quite protected, a trip that took about 30 minutes. Once there the work boat guys used a barge with a crane to lift the dive boat by its transom while the bow was tethered to the dock. Once the dive boat was lifted above its gunwales it able to be bailed and float on it own. This is the only time during the operation that I became cold. Another squall his us while we were bailing the boat and because I was only stabilising the boat and not physically doing much, the wind and heavy rain made me quite cold. Sensible Andrea was wearing a wet weather jacket, I was not. The dive boat looked in ok condition, the outboard being a 85hp Yamaha two stroke which should flush easily enough.

Talking to the lady from the dive boat while it was being bailed I found out the following; The work boat was pulling the yacht forward off the reef while the dive boat was pulling the yacht over to the side with one of the yacht halyards, coming from the top of its mast. The dive boat pulled the yacht forward at speed which pulled the it backwards as it was attached to the yachts halyard by its transom. This drove the transom of the dive boat under the water and it flipped. Nobody on the dive boat had a knife which had the halyard been cut, the incident would have been avoided.

Andrea and I motored our tender back to the harbour with one of the guys that was on the dive boat. The yacht was being moored in front of the resort as we arrived. We picked up Rob and had a brief chat to the couple on the yacht. They had been entering the harbour having motored from Utila that morning. They said they had done this many times before and had their previous tracks on their plotter. There is a natural channel that dog legs through the reef, not something that you would attempt on a nice day without way points or a track. They said they were half way across the reef heading to the first dog leg when a large fishing trawler came barging through the natural channel and literally stopped in front of them, causing them to stop and loose way. Upon loosing way they were picked up by a wave and thrown onto the reef, smashing their rudder or breaking their steering mechanism. Don’t forget it was between 40 and 50 knots at the time. They have no idea why the trawler stopped in front of them. We headed back to Muneera for hot showers and a late dinner. The kids were all fine having fed themselves. ”

That was a very courageous thing for Nick and Andrea to have done, braving 55 knot winds and seas to go to the aid of a stricken yacht on a reef but typical of them. It’s a great example of cruisers helping other cruisers, we all share the same risks and you know one day it might be you. You find this spirit of selflessness and mutual support with many cruisers but this was a sterling effort.
Well done you two but I would have thought the girls could have had dinner waiting for you!

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