A Close Encounter – by Gill

There are those heart-stopping times in cruising when you wonder if “this is it”?! “Has our luck run out, have we pushed it that bit too far or been too ambitious for our own good?” From the safety of a calm and beautiful anchorage in Raivavae we were thankfully able to reflect on the close encounter and knew that we were extremely lucky still to be afloat aboard an incredibly well built, tough and resilient yacht.
Our 6 day sail from the Gambier islands, leaving on a Friday 13th, had been uneventful and after the previous tempestuous leg, thankfully, relatively calm with light winds. So light, in fact, that at times we had had to squeeze every last puff out of the breeze, for much of the journey we sailed goose-winged and poled out (mainsail out one side and jib poled out on the other, to catch the following breeze). The resultant motion in this configuration is not pleasant and we rolled back and forth in a very sloppy and uncomfortable manner for days, giving us both a dose of chronic indigestion! Our daily tally of miles was low but an extra day or two under way wasn’t any big deal. We finally came to a halt on the last evening with the island of Raivavae in sight some 30 miles off when the winds shifted to the West “on the nose” and even hand-steering failed to maintain any forward motion.  

With the final instruction on my watch from the skipper that if the winds didn’t shift (as they were forecast to do but as usual the forecast was wrong) to a more favourable quadrant so that we could sail the last bit, I was to start the engine at midnight to move us along towards a daybreak landfall. At 2.00am and under engine Mike relieved me of my watch and I, as usual, climbed gratefully into my bunk. At 5.45 and in the pitch dark, I was rudely awoken as I was bounced with force from the bunk. Initially, I thought it must have been a rogue wave in a patch of very rough water hitting the side of the boat or a large log, but as more violent strikes followed realised it wasn’t the sea or logs. As I clambered out of the bunk, Mike appeared down below in shock, with the unimaginably terrifying words, “we’re on the reef”. In the dark it was impossible to see exactly what lurked below us, but we could certainly feel the impact of one bomie (coral head) after another as we continued across the submerged reef towards a line of white water in the distance. We lurched violently from side to side as the keel struck time and again, throwing us over from gunwale to gunwale. Time seems interminable in such a circumstance and with the horror of not being able to see and work out the best way clear, Mike put the boat in reverse at full power but were we actually moving backwards? It was impossible to tell in the dark and we prayed we would soon find ourselves back in deep water. After a good 40 minutes of gut-churning, breath-holding grinding and slamming we managed to turn the boat seaward with the help of the bow thrusters and all went calm again as we floated free. We were still, unbelievably, afloat with the rigging intact, the keel still attached, no water coming in and it seemed we were in no imminent danger of going to the bottom.

At the “inquest” a very chastened and embarrassed Mike admitted that his calculations on distance to the waypoint (which it appeared had mysteriously moved to rest on top of the reef – that gremlin again!) were wildly inaccurate and, worst of all, at the time of impact he had been sitting down below with his nose buried in a book!! We have both had many lessons to learn on this journey but this has been one of the most painful and potentially dangerous of them all as we considered how lucky we had been not to have lost the boat. (It was threatened that the kindle would be confiscated on all subsequent night passages and Mike would be lashed firmly to the wheel!!). We have heard that complacency is the worst enemy of sailors and it takes a lesson like this to reinforce and reawaken us to the dangers of the oceans and relying too much on electronic navigation.

Amazingly, the prop shaft “fix” which we had agonised over and which we had been carefully nursing with slow engine revs to minimise stress, was not only intact but showed no evidence of any movement and not even the tiniest trickle into the bilge. It was with fingers crossed and expecting the worst that Mike eventually plucked up courage to attach himself to the hookah once more and dive below to inspect the damage. As expected, the keel had not gone unscathed and the forward part was missing some “chunks” with the fibreglass the biggest sufferer and some underlying metal showing through, but in the circumstances we got off remarkably lightly with only superficial damage. There appeared to be no cracks or signs of stress which the haul out in Raiatea confirmed. Thank goodness once more for a boat built to withstand heavy usage, including an all too close encounter with a reef.

Although this experience is now inevitably bound to remain uppermost in our minds and be our memory of the Gambier to Raivavae journey, we should note however Mike’s prowess in catching and landing our biggest fish by far, to date. I was woken in the morning by the rhythmic thumping of something large and heavy above my head striking on the back deck. Emerging into the early morning sunshine, I was met by the bloody sight of Mike tussling with a huge Mahi Mahi which he was endeavouring to kill and which remained equally stubbornly in the land of the living. The whole area was spattered with blood as the fish thrashed this way and that, but the magnificent specimen with its large erect vivid blue dorsal fin was by now starting to lose its glorious iridescent golden colour. Whilst thinking of the number of fish meals it would yield there were also concerns of how to keep the fish fresh without refrigeration. The Mahi-Mahi is a magnificent fish in all its golden glory but this was also a sad moment to see such a beautiful creature meet its end and lose its colour. Just so that Mike can’t tell a “tall” fisherman’s story, I measured it and even without exaggeration it reached an impressive 45″ from tip of nose to tip of tail, quite a catch!


One that didn’t get away and yes it’s chilly out of the tropics if only just.

For the next two days we had a surfeit of fish but as we discovered, it really doesn’t keep very well without a fridge! The big dish of ceviche made on Day 1 stretched into Day 2 but the uncooked fish wasn’t a good idea for lunch and we both suffered a strange bout of itching, numbness and stomach upset following our fourth meal on the trot of Mahi Mahi. In retrospect, the unexpected demise of the curry which had been prepared for meals five and six was probably the safest outcome, if not the most fragrant or decorative way to use it. As the cooling saucepan of spicy mixture tossed backwards and forwards across the galley flinging its contents in all directions, on the night of the “close encounter”, it coated everything in its path. As well as adhering firmly in yellow fibrous patches to the ceiling, retexturing the undersides of the shelves and cupboards and gluing together cookery books, it even managed to find its way through the finger holes onto the contents within the galley cupboards and the whole area took on the pungent aroma of an Indian takeaway!
Our arrival in the calm and picturesque anchorage in Raivavae on that fateful morning of the 20th May will be easily remembered, it was Mike’s birthday and not just any birthday, it was his 70th, what a way to celebrate! Our arrival was more than welcome relief from the early morning traumas and once The Red Thread followed us safely through the reef and dropped anchor alongside, we all set off together to find the Gendarmerie and report in. Antoine, the most friendly policeman you could hope to find welcomed us, took our particulars, showed us the visitors book which had been started in 1959 and was still going strong with just a few yachts calling over the years at this remote island, and presented us with a welcoming supply of grapefruit.

The anchorage at Raivavae

With the help of Jessie and Neil the day was salvaged and the evening turned into a birthday celebration on The Red Thread. They produced a lovely meal (fish again but this time the tuna they had landed) and they even rustled up a birthday banner just so there was no doubt about the number!

The island has a tiny population, reputedly 500 in the two main villages, again just hamlets surrounding a single street with a church, small shop (“sorry no eggs, fruit or veg but there will be more when the boat comes in in a week’s time”!), the smart but fairly useless Mairie, an infirmary and surprisingly a small Internet cafe where the local young women were keeping up to date with Facebook! 

Some of the islands fearsome animals! 

As we walked along the “highway” we were accosted by Edmond on his scooter wanting to know where we had come from. We discovered that Edmond, “everyone knows me as La Boudet” who was a gregarious and very chatty 78 year old French resident kept himself busy and in pocket money with his little market garden producing greens for the nearby pensions. He had some bags of lettuce and cucumber swinging from his handlebars and told us that if we would like to come to his house in the next village (very specific instructions given all the way to the village) the following day (Sunday) we could buy some much needed vegetables and, better still, why not come for lunch as well. That was an invitation we couldn’t refuse, and so paddling the kayak around the headland to the next bay, armed with a gift bottle of rum, we went in search of Edmond and an anticipated Sunday lunch. As it turned out however Edmond had forgotten about our invitation stating he had had his lunch at 11.00 and was taking a nap when we arrived. His little house, typical it seems of many men on their own, had few frills and comforts but it suited him. He regaled us with his history and many black and white photos of his time in the French army in Djibouti, followed by his service in Polynesia where he settled and married and had remained for the past 60 odd years. We did eventually get our vegetables from his garden and some more grapefruit and bananas courtesy of Edmond’s neighbour – the grapefruit are widely grown but it seems that they are not eaten by the locals – strange, when they are by far the largest, sweetest, tastiest and most juicy that we have ever eaten. 
I spotted a basil plant growing at the roadside edge of a garden on the way back to the boat so we scrumped fresh herbs for dinner and when these ran out Mike was sent off on the kayak as a dusk raiding party to get some more for the spaghetti bolognese we were sharing with Jessie and Neil off The Red Thread. As he approached the house he could see the family sitting in the garden but by now it was fully dark and he couldn’t find the bush on a casual pass. So he tried a second pass getting his nose closer to the plants when a little boy of about six popped out of the drive and asked him “what are you doing”. He must have looked very strange peering into the undergrowth in the dark and said stupidly because it was the first thing that came into his head “I’m looking at your garden”. He was asked quite reasonably “why?” Mike was stumped for an answer and beat a hasty retreat down the road only creeping back when the coast seemed clear. Well he couldn’t come back and say he had failed in his mission, could he!? This time he found a basil bush by smell, grabbed a handful and got back to the kayak without being discovered. Mission accomplished!


Raivavae from the top of Mount Hiro taken by Jessie and Neil

Jessie and Neil of The Red Thread had suggested to us that we might like to experience a “sleep over” on their boat whilst we motored around the island inside the reef to the “swimming pool”, an apparently spectacular snorkelling area on the far side of the island. We were more than happy to leave Romano safely at anchor under the watchful eye of Antoine, the policeman, and we set off in sunshine to explore new waters. By the time we reached the other side of the island, the sun had given way to clouds and the visibility was not at its best. It soon became apparent that this had not been an all together good idea while we skirted and avoided one coral head after another, trying to find a good passage. As the good light finally gave up all together we anchored as best we could, Neil checked the anchor (swam over it) and we hoped for a quiet night. As the wind changed direction, and in the dark, we swung with it and there was that nasty, dreaded moment when we came into contact with a previously hidden coral head. Surrounded as we were by numerous other coral heads, it was impossible to move in the dark and the only solution was to take in some of the chain to pull us away from the offending pinnacle and put out a second bow anchor to hold us firmly in place. This is difficult enough in daylight but in the dark it was a feat of willpower and trust. As Jessie and I let off and adjusted the lines from the bow, Neil rowed the dinghy with Mike and the second anchor out to an angle from the first anchor chain and dropped the second anchor overboard. The whole exercise worked well and we were able to relax with the offending coral head now some way off our stern.
The following morning we were anticipating a thrilling snorkelling trip, instead we awoke to cloudy skies, a threat of high winds and imminent rain squalls. Neil decided that our anchored position was unreliable to say the least and the best course of action would be to get out of there asap. This was another test of “eyeball” navigation back through numerous coral heads, but this time with the added obstacle of hard, driving rain. Jessie and I on the bow took it in turns to wipe our glasses but after five minutes even that was a waste of time as we took on the appearance of drowned rats ready for the wet t-shirt competition! Finally, we successfully cleared the rock strewn area but not without a lot of tension, stress and curses – coral reefs are beautiful but at depths substantially lower than the keel! The benefits of such clear water are mixed – brilliant snorkelling but whilst motoring along it’s impossible, apart from the colour graduations, to assess accurate depths.
We returned to our original anchorage and we’re all happy to leave the boat safely whilst we went by dinghy to a nearby Motu (coral island) and explored and collected shells on the beach, followed by an interesting and stress free snorkel nearby. Getting back into the dinghy though was something else and both I and Mike had to be unceremoniously heaved and pushed back over the side like a couple of sacks of potatoes – oh to be young and flexible again!

Jessie trying out some Polynesian head ware, not sure if it will catch on in Seattle

We had decided to hire bikes and tour the island and the following day when the sun returned four vintage bone shakers duly appeared outside the Gendarmerie and we each chose our model. They all had back brakes operated by back pedalling and it soon became obvious that I’m no longer coordinated enough to either get started or stop and before the circumnavigation of 22 kms was completed I had been spilled twice from my ancient steed. Miraculously, the dozen eggs in the front basket withstood the shock better than I did and remained intact. I was also blessed with a flat tyre, fortunately only a couple of miles from home, which gave me the excuse not to mount up again. The tour de Raiavavae was another lovely day out though giving us the chance to appreciate more beautiful coastline, pretty churches and poke around in a couple more tiny shops where we revelled in our finds of the day – eggs and potatoes.

The Intrepids!

We would have loved to linger longer on this beautiful island but the boatyard called and knowing that the sooner we could get the work done, the sooner we could continue to explore Polynesia with peace of mind. The weather window promised us good easterly winds for the few days needed to reach Raiatea in the Society Islands and so the decision was made to leave the next day, Saturday 28th May. A last visit to the Internet cafe, a trip to the shop to discover what had arrived with the visiting ship that morning (carrots, cabbage and apples) and goodbye to our friends and the friendly Gendarme and at 2.00pm we weighed anchor and headed out through the reef.
It seems that no passage is destined to go completely smoothly and this one was no exception. With lumpy seas which tossed us unkindly and uncomfortably from side to side, we spent the first day or so hanging on as every cross wave heeled the boat. Mike had gone to bed and I was clearing up the galley on my watch (I suppose I should have thoroughly washed the floor first and cleaned up the greasy chicken fat from our roast dinner but that was on the list to follow the oven cleaning!). An extra powerful lurch threw me skating backwards at speed, breaking through the galley restraining strap and thudding into the wooden pole by the companionway. I spent the next hour resting on the floor where I had fallen, clutching the back of my bleeding head with a large depression at the base of my skull. Fortunately, the depression gradually filled back out with the application of copious amounts of that wonder cream, Arnica and I was able to return to my watch duties. All in the name of that sport called sailing! As the skipper was kind enough to point out, just a small bang on the head and a little scratch, nothing to make a fuss about! 

We are now safely ashore with the boat on the hard and receiving tlc from what appears (touch wood) to be an efficient local workforce. The prop is out, the fibreglass work to the keel has been started and the fridge man has ordered the replacement parts – yippee – in another two weeks or so we should be back in the water with everything repaired and working – fingers crossed! It’s still amazing to us that the keel took such a pounding and seeing other boats in the yard which have suffered similar misfortunes with far greater damage, we know how lucky we are.

Romano being lifted at Raiatea Carenage for some much needed TLC.  

Our next post will be our time in The Society Islands and hopefully this will be a little less stressful.

3 thoughts on “A Close Encounter – by Gill

  1. Wow – sounds like you have definitely been through quite a bit lately – being on the reef is definitely a nightmare no sailor wants to think of – so glad that you made it through with as little damage as you had. You really are fortunate to have such a sturdy boat to handle that and survive as well as it did. So glad the outcome was such a good one. As you say, these are the events that keep reminding us of how powerful mother nature is and what she can do to us if we aren’t careful enough. Glad that you have been having some better times with your explorations afterwards. Sounds like you’ve had enough excitement for a while so hopefully your next posts will be full of more explorations and less stress inducing activities. Best wishes always! Janice & Bob sv Tsamaya

  2. Wow… Jenny and I fancy doing the same trip….”ON AN OCEAN GOING LINER”… you’re only half way round Mike whats taking you so long, Haha – Joking apart amazing experience, glad all is well with you, Jenny & Clive.

  3. Pingback: Dare we depart port on Friday the 13th? | s/v The Red Thread

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