The Longest Day of our Lives

Having decided to leave Fiji for New Zealand in order to take advantage of a huge high pressure system approaching from the west over Australia, we left our lovely anchorage of Musket Cove on October 12th about 8AM and headed east into the sun for the marina where we would refuel. We would check out of the country the next day.

We were a little concerned about needing to pass two reef shoals on our left and one on our right. In order to thread a line through the three areas we plotted a waypoint on the GPS and off we went. Mistake number one was diverting from the waypoint too early. Mistake number two was Jane’s delay in pulling power when the depth started to come up rapidly. The reef was totally beneath the water and there was no sign of it at all until it was too late. Keep in mind that these reefs are surrounded by water over 100’ deep and ten miles out from any land. There are no markers on them to show where they are.

We heard and felt the terrible crunch as Satori ran half her keel aground. Looking at the situation with snorkeling gear we could see a large brain coral head just to the port side of the keel. That was really the only part of the keel touching as the aft part of the boat hung out over deep water. It was enough to have us hard aground and no amount of reverse engine power would make a difference.

The time of the accident was about 9:30 AM about 1.5 hours after high tide. We had to accept the idea that we were not going anywhere until the tide came back in. The difference between low tide at 1:30 PM and high tide at 7:35 PM was scheduled to be 4.3’ Would that be enough? Could Satori withstand the punishment of being on her side for that long?

Jane took the dinghy out to get a few pictures when we had about 10 degrees list. That wasn’t bad. We were not ready for the next inevitable part of the experience. About 10:30 AM we had lost enough water from under the keel that Satori could no longer balance against that brain coral and down she slid towards the port side until we had an unbelievable 30 degrees of list. She was later to lose another 5 degrees before it was all over as we climbed to the high side to sit out the hours.

The picture of Sander was taken on the high side of the 35 degree list. You can see the chain that we had dragged out of the chain locker in the bow and brought to the stern. The plan is to relieve the weight on the bow and transfer it to the part of the boat that is floating free. In reality the process just gave us something to do to relieve the tension.

We did not try to notify anyone on the VHF radio. Had someone come to help haul us off, we could not try it until the water came back in to float us again. By that time we would probably be able to manage the escape by ourselves. Four sailboats came by close enough to offer assistance. How could they not notice a huge black boat lying on its side in the middle of all that deep water? One of the boats had two young men aboard who were terribly worried about us. It took a lot of convincing and about an hour’s time for them to agree to move on. We feared that they would be caught by the hours of darkness in trying to reach their destinations.

As the time of low tide passed and the water started to return, Satori began to regain her buoyancy. This is not a comfortable time in the whole ordeal. The winds (about 5-10 mph) were quartering from the port aft side. Along with the wind came some short choppy waves. Satori was teetering from the deep towards the reef. She would begin to right herself a little and then fall back against that brain coral with a bam! After a half hour of this routine she was able once more to stay upright enough to be off the coral.

By 5 PM we finally had as much water beneath the keel as we had had when we went aground. Now we would make some serious attempts at getting off. With the wind coming from aft, there was the danger of winds and waves pushing us further up onto the reef. Running the engine in reverse at a low RPM would guard against that . Beginning to worry about the oncoming darkness and the possibility that we would not be able to get off the reef on our own, we contacted a marina and arranged for a boat to stand by in case we would need them.

Jane took to the dinghy and pushed on the stern or the bow at Sander’s direction while he ran the engine. The keel came up and back just a little. Oh Wow! Would we finally make it? The wind did just what we had feared and pushed us to starboard just far enough that the rudder was caught on a different outcrop. With Jane stationed at the stern and pushing with the dinghy at top rpm, we gave it one last go before calling in the rescue troops. Sander kept yelling, “Keep going!” so Jane kept the dinghy pushing for all it was worth. Finally Sander gave the order to cut the power to the dinghy and Jane was crest-fallen! When the power was cut he assured Jane, “It’s OK. We’re off. We’re OK.” We learned much later that all the folks at Musket Cove Marina had been terribly worried about us. The high tide time was so close to dark that it would have been difficult (at best) to affect a rescue operation. The fates were with us as they have been so many times in the past.

We told the story to two different cruising pairs later…one from Australia and one from Portugal. Both these pairs had been cruising for many years. They sympathized with us, “Yes, it is a horrible experience.” They could honestly say that because each of them had been on a reef more than once. We cannot imagine that it will happen to us again, but one never knows. Thank God that we had a big strong metal-hulled boat. Satori will need to have some additional bottom paint when we haul out in New Zealand, but (otherwise) she seems no worse for the experience.

We write this letter to you from New Zealand. It took us ten days to get here and the experience was another “learning one”. Top winds were about 43 knots but the seas were huge! We spent the first three days underway trying not to be sick. We arrived at Opua, on the North Island at 9 PM on Oct 25th. We worked our way into the quarantine area and tied down for the night. It is difficult to put into words just how absolutely grand it is to finally have the boat still. The nights are cool here. We snuggle down under the blankets and are dead to the world.

We took the bus 30 miles south to the city of Whangarei to work out the marina arrangements for the next six months. The Northland area of North Island is similar to New England…green, green, green pastures and hills with grazing cows and sheep. Creeks and wooden bridges follow twisting narrow roads with one super sight after the other. In New England we could not look out and see palm trees mixed in with the evergreens.

The third photo was taken on the transit from Opua to Whangarei (Fong’-a-ray).

Jane and Sander aboard Satori in New Zealand