Mahina Expeditions offers offshore sail-training expeditions, offshore cruising seminars and boat purchase consultation.

Mahina Expeditions offers offshore sail-training expeditions, offshore cruising seminars and boat purchase consultation.

SAILING THROUGH PARADISE, Log #9

Aug. 18, 1997 0400
21.12 S, 159.35 W Log: 7025 Water: 74.5 F Air: 70 F
At anchor, Avatiu Hbr., Rarotonga, Cook Islands Winds 20 - 35 kts, NW

Battling a Tropical Depression at Anchor.

Our landfall in Rarotonga couldn't have been easier. Minutes after a fiery sunrise we slowly and carefully motored through the reef entrance into tiny Avatiu Harbor, the only place to moor on the island. After clearing customs and immigration, we took the offer of several cruisers med-moored to the concrete wharf to drop a bow anchor and back in between them, tying stern-to. With our crew handling four lines, easing the anchor and with Bob and Miro in the Avon acting as our bow thruster we easily slid into the narrow opening between two boats. Saturday was a near-cloudless and perfect day. Earl completed his weather instruction and soon everyone headed toward the picturesque town in search of the laundromat and cold beer.

That night we enjoyed a great dinner together at Trader Jack's, a salty watering hole and restaurant perched on the side of the reef, within spitting distance of the remains of the wreck of Irving Johnson's brigantine Yankee. Plans were made and discussed for Sunday - too many things - splicing and sail repair instruction with Amanda, church with the beautiful singing downtown, hiking over the center of the island, circumnavigating Raro by bike. We all quickly fell asleep, hardly noticing the high-octane local band across the street belting out maori and pop music.


Rarotonga Harbor before tropical depression strikes

I awoke very early the squealing and protesting of our four stern lines. Soon after daybreak I couldn't help but overhear excited discussion from a sailor on the wharf to the cruisers on the next boat. The most distinctive words I remembered were, "...deepening tropical depression, winds to 35 knots and increasing, headed this way!"

That got my attention immediately. Any storm system passing Raro would be sure to bring a shift of winds to the North, the direction the harbor is wide-open and unprotected from. Since my first visit in 1975, every year I've heard stories of yachts being forced to put to sea in the middle of a storm to avoid being pulverized against the concrete wharf by breakers which wash through the harbor in northerly winds.

The weatherfax charts and IMARSAT Navtex bulletins told the story; a fast moving and deepening tropical disturbance had appeared out of nowhere and was forecast to pass just south of Raro within less than 18 hours.

I knew that we would not be safe sandwiched between boats with a jumble of crossed anchor lines in front of us and told the crew that we must move the boat as soon as possible and that in the worst case scenario, Amanda and I might be several days at sea, sailing and hove to offshore in gale force conditions. Not wanting any chance of missing their plane home on Monday, furious packing commenced and all crew stayed to help us get clear of the tangle of boats.


A soggy Leg 3 crew after re-anchoring Mahina Tiare III, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

By the time we were clear of the other boats the air was thick with a tropical downpour and 25 kts of wind out of the NNE. We found just enough room to drop out main anchor, a 75lb. CQR with 250' of 3/8" chain near the harbor entrance and take a 300' <" stern line ashore to keep us from swinging. The wind is now slowly backing to the NW and the breakers rolling through the harbor are crashing against the wharf and back on the boats tied stern-to. The double-enders seem to be riding worst, with a Hans Christian 38 alternatively burying her bowsprit and boomkin, a Tashiba 40 pitching deeply and a Norwegian Colin-Archer double-ender on the wharf is really taking a beating.

There are few lights around the harbor, but the masts are wildly gyrating and by flashlight the crews are doing everything they can to prevent damage to their boats. Mahina Tiare is riding well now that I've taken our stern line to the bow and taken our 40lb West Marine Performance 2 anchor out with 50' of 3/8" chain and 150' of <" nylon line in only 20' of water.

1100 hrs. Update

Now we're in trouble! I've toasted our 15hp outboard trying to save Medusa, the Norwegian 50' concrete double-ender from smashing herself to death against the harbor wall. It would be nearly impossible to row out another anchor if either of ours start to drag. Since MT was free to swing into the wind and not threatened by other boats or concrete walls, at first light I jumped into the Avon and spent 4.5 hrs continually taking out additional anchors and re-setting anchors for crews desperately trying to keep their boats from being smashed against the wall. When a sharp CRACK sounded above the shrieking winds I noticed that Medusa's crew were frantically gesturing for help re-setting their beam anchor which was no longer holding them off the wall.

 

A huge breaking wave had picked up the 50,000 lb ketch, smashing her down on the wharf, destroying the bowsprit, holing the hull just above the waterline. The next wave smashed her stern against the wharf, breaking a mizzen shroud and sending the mizzen mast crashing down. Her engine out of commission, it seemed that if her beam anchor couldn't be set quickly, Medusa might be sunk at the wharf. With breakers sweeping the 8' high wharf, attempts to pick up one of the Norwegians and their large anchor off the wharf were too dangerous so the sailor dived into the water, scrambled aboard the Avon and the harbormaster tied a line to the anchor, tossed it to us, then we drug the anchor and considerable amount of chain into the water. Instead of pulling the anchor and chain into the dinghy, the Norwegian insisted that I just keep pulling in reverse.

 


Medusa's mizzen dismasted, bowsprit smashed fighting for survival in Rarotonga's tiny harbor. Photo: George Deane


Medusa's smashed bowsprit with yachts along wharf in background. Photo: George Deane

Dragging the chain through the breakers in reverse was just asking too much of the incredibly dependable Johnson 15, and just as we finally got the anchor up the motor died in a spectacular cloud of steam. The anchor held, Medusa didn't sink, although was terribly battered against the concrete which smashed her bulwarks from stem to stern. I was just barely able to row to Mahina Tiare against the wind and breakers. Over the VHF radio the harbormaster thanked me for setting anchors and called the local Johnson dealer who said that he would look at it right away so I rowed ashore and with help from expedition member Bob Franke hoisted the motor ashore, rented a car and dropped the motor off. On returning to the harbor, the South African skipper whose anchor I anchor I had earlier re-set said, "You'll never be able to row out to your boat in these conditions, please use my new outboard". In just minutes we had the motor on and he and I were setting one of MT's spare anchor for the singlehander next to him whose dragging anchor had him dangerously close to the wall and the Hans Christian next door.

By sunset the winds were down from 35 to 25 knots, had backed to the NW and conditions were slowly moderating. Small groups of cruisers gathered, discussing damage, wondering out loud what had happened to the yacht that had radioed the harbormaster in the worst moments, reporting huge seas, a blown-out mainsail, nine miles offshore.

 

Tues., Aug. 19 0930 Weatherfax shows depression continues to deepen, now 992 millibars, forecast for 984 tomorrow, with storm force winds and seas 20'-25'. The center will pass south of Tahiti today, and boats in the Society Islands were discussing storm shelters on the SSB radio this morning.

Today life is back to normal aboard Mahina Tiare. Sun's out and we're off to the Laundromat and busy tidying the boat for our Leg 4 crew who arrive next Monday.

Lessons learned: boats that had two substantial back-up anchors, each with 40'-50' of chain and 150'-200' of nylon line as well as an oversized main bow anchor on all-chain fared best. Anchors listed in order of preference for this firm sand bottomed harbor with sharp breaker-induced loading: CQR, Delta, Bruce and Danforth last. Generally top-rated for holding in sand, I re-set more Danforths than any other design. Possibly the strong jerking from pitching bows, plus the factor that none of the boats used Danforths with all chain were factors. All of the CQR's and Delta's held without re-setting, but I re-set several Bruce anchors, though none with all chain.

Re-setting a large anchor with all-chain in these conditions is difficult at best. MT's 75 lb. CQR on 250' of 3/8" chain and 40lb West Marine Performance-2 (improved Danforth design) held well. Next blow I'll try our new 44lb Delta instead as a second bow anchor. I will also probably add another 150' <" spare anchor rode, as with our 300' of New England Ropes <" Mega-Braid doing an awesome job as a line ashore and 150' of <" NER 3-strand as second anchor rode, I had no spare rode (other than spare halyard material) in case I needed to set the Delta as a third anchor. Granted, other than in Patagonia and Antarctica I haven't needed to set a third bow anchor in the last 70,000 miles, it could just make a difference one day. Tenders: small dinghy-type inflatables with floorboards were flipped by the wind and seas. Although our 11' Avon RIB 3.41 is at times a pain on deck, the design, weight and power meant that running anchors out in 35 knot winds and breaking seas was possible.

I'm sure that some of you would question the advisability of even stopping in the Cook Islands where none of the harbors are safe from all directions, even in this, the best weather time of the year. Cruising includes evaluating options and risk, as well as preparation. The Cooks are often recalled by cruisers as one of their most treasured South Pacific landfalls with open and friendly islanders, far less sophisticated or used to tourists than the Society Islands to the north. There is more risk involved in cruising these islands which are a little more off the "beaten path", but I think it's well worth the risk and preparation.


John and Amanda's timeout in paradise- Rarotonga

To The Next Log Entry:
Log #10 - 8/18/97

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