28 February 2019
It has been over a week. I can finally write about this. The title should give a pretty good indication that I'm not going to write about sandy beaches, smiling locals, or great snorkeling. Snorkeling was part of this but with a sharp knife in my hand.....
A large low pressure system was tracking south of Gambiers. We all knew there was going to be a big blow from the northwest and had to seek shelter. Trade winds are from the east. Most of the anchorages are protected from the east. There are only two places to anchor in strong west winds. Rikitea, the main town and Taravai, a smaller island with a reef protected anchorage. We chose Taravai for several reasons. First of all, we hadn't visited that anchorage yet. We had enjoyed the beach BBQ and volleyball Sundays at Herve and Valorie's, right in Taravai Bay. We also had a group of friends who would be there and thought a “cyclone party” among friends would be fun.
There are only about 35 cruisers in Gambiers. Eight of us were in Taravai and the rest in Rikitea. The eight of us had a hell of a time while those in Rikitea were in relative comfort. Taravai Bay is not well protected from the north. Winds were supposed to start out NNW then go to NW. They stayed closer to NW and were much stronger than predicted. The slot between Taravai and Mangereva also created a wind tunnel, intensifying the wind in Taravai.
Getting into Taravai Bay is a real challenge. There is a narrow, winding channel with some depths of only 10 feet. We followed Allora through the channel. They had been there before and led the way. We saw no less than 12 feet and were happy to have a pilot boat going through. Our GPS keeps our tracks and we could easily follow the track to leave the bay. It was Friday and weather was still fine. We had an impromptu volleyball game and drinks that evening at Herve and Valorie's.
We anchored in a hole, 35 feet deep but there were coral reefs all around. Lisa set the anchor well and we were satisfied with our position. Winds were light the first night. That evening and the next morning was a bake-off among Allora, Kinnipopo, and Uproar. Dan and Staci from Kinnipopo brought over a delicious breadpudding with whipped cream. Diana followed up with fresh, hot beniets. Wow, what a treat. Lisa made scones and we dinghied them around the next morning. That afternoon, Diana from Allora made Foccia. Their dinghy was nestled aboard on davits for the blow so I ferried the goods around to the other boats in Houdinky.
The second night the wind blew. I would say not much more than 30 knots the first night but that's a lot of breeze. The boats were swinging at anchor but waves were slight in the small bay. The next day wind was even stronger, gusts well into the 40s. We anchored expecting NW winds. With the winds staying more N. There was a reef of coral only a 50 feet behind us. By afternoon, it was clear that we were gradually slipping toward the reef.
With increasing wind, we had to take action. We started the engine. The plan was for Lisa to motor up and to the east of our anchor. I would drop our spare anchor and we would be held off the reef. It was wild in the screaming wind. Lisa put the boat in position and I dropped the anchor. She put Uproar in neutral and the wind instantly drove us sideways, tearing downwind. The spare anchor line got caught behind the keel!
We stopped short of the reef but Uproar was being held sideways to the wind by the second anchor line around the keel. Not good! We made several attempts to motor up and free the line. It almost worked but on the third try, the line wrapped around the propeller! Not good! We were driven back onto the reef.
Our primary anchor was slowly dragging. We entered the reef with the bow pointing directly into the wind. As our keel crunched into the coral, we were held straight into the wind with no swinging. We were locked in place. It was fairly comfortable except for the fact that that the reef could eventually break up our boat.
I dove overboard with a sharp knife. The propeller was well wrapped with the second anchor rode. The prop had severed the rode so our second anchor was lost. I was able to clear the line with about 6 breathes and dives. I could see our keep had punched several feet down into the coral. There were a few scratches on the rudder but it was sitting above the coral. That was quite a relief. The rudder is not nearly as strong as the keel.
Dan from Kinnipopo snorkeled over to us. He climbed aboard to help. Pierre from another boat was dinghing around collecting kiteboarding gear that had been blown off Kinnipopo. Pierre lived on Taravai for 5 years. He said, “Keep motoring out, the coral is soft and you can break through!” That's exactly what we did. With the engine maxed out at 3,600 rpm, I swung the rudder port and starboard. Uproar sawed through the coral and eventually pulled clear. We had been on the coral about half an hour. What a relief to be floating again.
Dan helped a lot by communicating between me and Lisa as she pulled up the anchor. We were free, motoring around the small bay. What to do next? It was clear that other boats were having anchor problems at that point. If we re-anchored, would it hold? Taravai Bay now felt like a trap. We made the decision to get the heck out of there and motor back to Rikitea, 4 miles away. But first we had to negotiate the hazardous pass through the reef.
We motored close to Kinnipopo, Dan jumped off with our sincere thanks for his help. Lisa was on the bow watching and I was glued to the GPS as we entered the pass. Wind was sideways to Uproar and we were heeling 30 degrees on bare poles alone! I had to keep the speed up or we would have no control. But ideally we wanted to creep through the pass at slow speed. That deep keel that could trap and destroy us in the pass was our friend, keeping Uproar on track at only 3 knots of speed in the blow. We were heeled over so far our 8 foot draft was reduced to about 5 feet at that angle. We made it through!
I have never been so relieved to be clear of danger. We were moving and in deep water. While I was underwater, cutting the prop free, I was pretty sure we hadn't sustained major damage. We checked and no water was flooding the bilges. We motored across the open channel to Rikitea. Wind was funneling down that channel. Everything on shelves was tumbling onto the floor we were heeling so much. No matter, I couldn't have been happier.
Rikitea anchorage was crowded. We circled around and decided to anchor out a bit into the channel. We knew the bottom was muck even though it was 65 feet deep. We let out all of our anchor chain (200 feet) and about 100 feet of rode. Uproar stuck fast. The next two days were still stormy. The wind over the mountains swirled around and Uproar swung like a terrier on a leash. But we knew we were safe.
Zamovia, a Maple Leaf 50, was anchored near us. During one hard puff, their heavy, 12 foot dinghy with 30 hp outboard motor just flipped over! Lisa saw it happen. We filled the bottom of our Houdinky with water to weight it down in the blow. In the driving rain, Garrett quickly righted his dinghy and went to work on the motor. He soon got it running. It saved his brand new motor!
Two days later the wind died enough for us to go ashore. Boats further in the anchorage swirled around from the wind coming off the mountain but rode in relative comfort. We later learned that the low that passed south of us was a true, tropical depression. No kidding! We had four days of blow. I rank this as in the top 5 storms we have been through with Uproar. Our friends in Taravai Bay said it only got worse after we left. They clocked gusts of 54 knots! I'm sure it took that much wind to flip Zamovia's dinghy. But the winds in Rikitea were just violent gusts. Wind was stronger and more steady in Taravai Bay and they still had the gusts.
For the next few days we were shell shocked. I'm not embarrassed to admit we were questioning the whole cruising program. A week later, now I can write about it. I dove to inspect the bottom. There are no stress cracks around the keel. I didn't expect to find any, Uproar has an extensive grid framework supporting the keel with internal aluminum structure. The keel is lead which absorbs energy. We didn't feel a lot of hard bumping in the soft coral either. The bottom 2 ½ feet of are scratched up a lot with all bottom paint ground off. Much of the epoxy barrier coat is intact. We will have to sand and recoat the keel to keep it in racing trim but it is perfectly fine as is. The rudder has some scratches and the aft corner at the bottom was clipped off, smaller than a penny. I'll just sand it smooth. Lucky!
After any mishap it is important to analyze our mistakes. Mishaps are often an accumulation of small errors that lead up to a problem.
1. We chose the wrong anchorage. Always go to the most protected one when weather threatens.
2. We didn't have enough scope out for storm conditions. This was due to the restricted space we anchored in and our unquestioning faith in our Spade anchor (still our favorite anchor).
3. We underestimated the wind strength. Early forecasts were wrong. Plan for the worst.
4. After deploying the second anchor, putting the engine in neutral was not the right move, we should have gradually throttled back and gently come back on that anchor. That would have prevented the line wrapping around the keel and eventually propeller.
5. Perhaps we got lucky through the Taravai reef pass in the storm. Someone was watching out for Uproar. Merci!
We love the island of Taravai. Herve and Valorie do not run a restaurant or bar. They are one of three homesteaders on the island and just love to entertain on their beautiful beach. Oh, we are sorry about the damage to coral. Couldn't be helped. But we are told it grows up to 3 feet/year here. There is no shortage of healthy coral in French Polynesia. Unfortunately their bay will forever be known to us as Terrify Bay.