21 September 2010 | Lautoka
Today we made the run from Musket Cove back to Lautoka to clear out. Tomorrow we will come back this way, through a break in the reef surrounding western Fiji called Navula Pass, and on to New Caledonia. Unfortunately Fiji is not very flexible with clearance, we can't clear out then stop at any more islands.
On the one hand, today's should be an easy run, 20 nm back along a course we have traveled. The sun makes the reefs visible around 9:00 AM, but as we had a previous track in our GPS to follow we could start earlier and make sure we had enough time in Lautoka to provision and clear out.
As we approached the second turn out of Musket Cove, I saw that a ketch which left just before us had stopped near the turn. At first I thought he might have anchored out away from the other boats, perhaps to dive, but as we got closer I grew concerned: it was a strange place to stop. I followed my track and stayed clear of the boat, and as I drew nearer I could see the green water of the shallow reef on both sides, and the churning of water behind the boat as the skipper tried to power off the reef. We circled nearby and hailed the skipper on the radio, but he did not answer. We got closer and Christine called to him, he held up his arms indicating he needed assistance, but there was not much we could do directly as we could not get very close without risking our own boat. He needed assistance from a shallow draft power boat. We radioed the Marina and both local resorts, but as it was only 7:30, we did not get an answer. After our third call another boat on anchor responded, and we explained the situation. The skipper said he would dinghy into the marina and organize assistance. We continued to try to communicate with the grounded skipper, but he was not responding to us at all. He continued to try to motor off. His dinghy was in the water but it did not look like he had set a kedge. Our dinghy was aboard and tied down, we couldn't launch it without returning to the harbor and anchoring, more appropriate help was on the way.
Soon we received a call from the skipper helping from the marina: it might be an hour or more until a boat could come assist, and the tide was falling. The grounded skipper then broke in, providing detail on his situation. We circled back to make sure the grounded skipper stayed safe. A few minutes after we returned, a dinghy came out, took a line and begin trying to pull the boat off. It was soon joined by a trawler. They had attached a line to a halyard at the top of the mast. By using leverage and pulling the boat partially onto its side, they could reduce the depth of the keel, and hopefully slide it off. We thought we could hear grinding as they tried this, but the boat did not free. Soon we received another radio call: the boat could not be freed on this tide, they would have to wait several hours for the tide to come back up. They released us, and with sadness we continued to Lautoka.
I think the boat grounded within a couple of hours and a foot or two of the earlier high. Judging by their position had likely been at full speed and run up onto the reef with a lot of momentum. It would not be easy to free, even at the next high. As we continued we heard a frantic search for truck tires in an attempt to brace the boat and minimize damage at low tide as the afternoon winds came up.
We had several more reefs to pass on the route to Lautoka, and we kept a careful watch. As we passed Vunda Point and and approached Saweni Bay, Christine thought a boat near shore was listing. As we approached we realized it was another boat aground. This one had struck between two coral heads near shore. It had clearly been there for a few hours, as it was listing badly with the still receding tide. We approached as close as we dared and called out, but there was no answer. A dinghy was tied to it, but anyone aboard should have heard us. There were other boats anchored not far away, so we think they had already received assistance.
It was quite a shock to see two freshly grounded boats in one day. As I have mentioned before, sailing in Fiji is tricky. The reefs are often not exactly where the chart plotter says. In fact, to enter Musket Cove, I had to follow my eyes and the local marks, sailing directly over what my plotter though was shallow water. Entering at mid day we could clearly see the shallow reefs. Christine was often stationed at the bow looking out, with me at the helm. I think the ketch was a single hander.
I have entered the approximate location of the first grounded boat in this blog. Via the Google Earth utility you can see the reef he hit. The second boat was near 17 deg 38.0 minutes S, 177 deg 23.17 minutes E.
P.S. The next day as we were leaving Fiji, the second boat had been cleared of the reef. The first boat appeared from a distance to still on the reef. I think he grounded hard, and after 24 hours on the reef with some high winds, it is possible that the boat will be beyond repair. A real tragedy for the owner. Fortunately it appeared that no one was injured.
We will stay diligent in our remaining time at sea.