Well, the Dangerous Archipelago certainly lived up to it’s name. While we were in the middle of the bank shenanigans we posted about last week, we all had a rude awakening of just how tenuous our relationship with the sea is. If you recall from my post on the Tuamotus, I talked about the challenges of navigating in and around these atolls. As we were entering the North Fakarava pass (see previous post describing what this means), we heard a Mayday call. It was a boat we knew, another kid boat that left Mexico about the same time we did. They were about 5 miles from us and they where taking on water rapidly and needed assistance immediately.
We jumped on the radio and coordinated the rescue/assistance operation. They had been navigating inside the atoll and were only about three miles from the anchorage when they accidentally left the relative safety of the “channel” and hit a coral head. Their hull, made of glassed over marine plywood, had a hole the size of a football that was gushing water faster than they could pump or bail.
We learned a lot about making and assisting a Mayday call.
- Talk slowly on the radio, repeat yourself and don’t skip words and punctuation in GPS coordinates. Give your physical location in relation to surrounding landmarks and describe your boat. “A white boat with white sails” is hardly useful, especially on the San Francisco Bay as we heard on the radio on a busy Sunday many moons ago. Think about what makes your boat stand out. Thankfully, for many reasons, their boat was a trimaran so, easy for others to spot.
- If you are able, describe what assistance you need. This may not be clear at first as it wasn’t for them, but asking for specific kinds of help mobilized more people. “We need someone to take our children off the vessel.”
- Train everyone on board to talk on the radio and to know your GPS location. The adults on board were so completely absorbed with trying to asses and deal with the situation that their kids were the ones on the radio. They did a great job!
- We should have repeated “Mayday” when we took over trying to coordinate help for them. This was a big lesson. I was baffled why more people were not responding to me as I called to boats in the anchorage (there were at least 30 boats!) to get in their dinghies and head toward the boat in need of help. I was totally unsuccessful at getting anyone to repeat the message in French. Our guess is that, because I did not repeat “Mayday, Mayday for Sailing Vessel X” people assumed we were just Americans who didn’t know to get off Chanel 16 when trying to meet up. In hindsight this makes sense as probably more than 80% of the vessels in this anchorage were not native English speakers. The word “Mayday” is an internationally recognized word and we should have been using it more during the conversation.
- Do NOT put your boat in danger to assist another boat. We were navigating in an area we were not familiar with and we had multiple people on the bow as we sped towards them. In hindsight we probably still put ourselves in more danger than we should have.
- If you are underway and on deck, wear a PFD. Get PFDs that you will actually wear any time the vessel is underway, even in an atoll with no seas. That is our policy on Banyan.
Thankfully, all ended safely with this vessel. When we had almost reached them we finally saw about 5 dinghies show up to assist. One took all the young kids, several helped tow the boat to safe anchorage while others began to put together plans for patching the hole and pumping out the water. Because it was a trimaran, the outer hulls kept their boat afloat.
Sadly, this misadventure has ended this families sailing adventures for the present. The work that would have to be done to make this boat habitable again would require months if not years of work and who knows how much money. The water was above the countertops in the main hull. After many difficult days and difficult decisions, they decided to find another home for their boat, go home and work to sail another day.
Through this process we got to experience first hand the amazing generosity, ingenuity and know-how of the sailing community. People spent hours in the water with dive gear, patching the hole, people donated pumps, expensive and valuable materials, one man brought his boat over next to them so they could run his 220 volt generator to power the donated pumps. People worked day in and day out with no thought of thanks or repayment just to make sure that a fellow cruiser didn’t loose his home.
As for Banyan, we took all 4 kids for 5 nights and kept them and their parents fed as they had nowhere to eat or sleep while they worked tirelessly to figure out what to do. I won’t say that it wasn’t hard at times (mainly for whoever was on mess duty), but the kids were amazing, Adelaide and Isa thought they hit the jackpot! For almost a week they got three new brothers and another kid sister and perpetual sleepovers! We used more of the games that mainly sit dormant on Banyan and all the books got more love than ever. The stuffed animals got a new wardrobe and the remora fish that lived under our boat thought they had died and gone to heaven with all the food scraps that ran down the sink.
Once we wrapped up our duties to these (now lifelong) friends, and finally got our taxes paid, it was time to go play!!!
Off we went to the south pass of Fakarava, being very very careful to stay in the Chanel.
The South Pass of Fakarava was amazing. We definitely want to come back and spend more time in the Tuamotus. Diving the passes when the current is coming in is such a trip. You dinghy to the pass entrance, jump in the water and the current carries you along, sucking you through the pass and by all sorts of amazing coral and sea life (including sharks!). One area was dubbed the “Magic Carpet” and it couldn’t have a better name. We would jump in, drift, jump back in the dingy, go back to the start and do it again. We met new friends and snorkeled and drift dove there for three days before having to shove off on a short yet bumpy passage to Tahiti where I had a flight scheduled to come back to the US and check on the grape vines, the maturing wines and do a bit of business.