As far as I was concerned, there was nothing wrong with the bay we were in. But for Kirsten, one of our crewmembers, who is a 14-year-old going on 18, nearby Sawini Bay, which had a beach, a family-run store and lodge, and even one or two houses, was infinitely preferable. The one we were in had only mangroves and swamps.
In Fijian waters, the danger is not the big, spectacular reefs, some of which extend many miles offshore — you can see the white flash against the blue of the sea from two miles away, and at night you can hear the thunder of the breakers. It’s the small and not so small patches of coral you have to look out for; some are on the chart, some are not.
The thing you do not do is what we did: set off at dusk at the top of the tide.
In Sawini Bay, toward the head, a reef ran from one side to the other and had an unmarked gap in the middle. Yachts anchor off the beach inside the reef, after passing through the gap in good visibility. We wouldn’t be able to see the reef, which is covered at high water, but could anchor outside it in about 15 or 20 feet (5 or 6 meters) — or so we thought. The weather was settled with the promise of a calm night.
When we arrived it was completely dark. We could dimly see one side of the bay but not the other. We slowed to a crawl. I was at the helm, and my wife, Lella, sang out the depths, “6 meters … 6 meters … 5 meters … 1 meter!” As soon as she said it, I felt Jackella bump and bump again. We were aground.
We had been aground in the past but always on a flooding tide. And we had always got off again, usually by putting a kedge out astern and winching off. This was different — the tide wasn’t on the come. And by the feel of things, we were on a hard, flat surface.
Low water was predicted to be at midnight, by which time we would have only a few inches of water. On the other hand, there was no wind; the water was flat calm.
Almost at once, two dinghies emerged from the darkness. Steve, a young man with an impressive ponytail and, as I later discovered, a sense of humor, came aboard. By then, I was dropping one of our CQRs (65 lbs) over the bow, just in case we were pushed further onto the reef. The other dinghy held a sailor named Owen, who remained in his tender.
There were two courses open to us and, naturally, division arose over which one to take. We could let Jackella fall gently with the tide, having first sounded all round to make sure she lay uphill. Or we could take long anchor lines to the masthead, from anchors laid a long way out, and try and hold her upright.
I was for the first option, but Owen was very firmly for the second. And he finally persuaded me to his view. Jackella does have a wide, flat-bottomed keel of half-inch (15-mm) steel. I just hoped that the coral was flat — which, of course, it rarely is.
The people in the dinghies, working in the dark, were superb. We carried four anchors — two 65-lb CQRs, a very large and heavy Danforth and a small Danforth of about 33 lbs — and plenty of long lines for just such an emergency.
When we had finished, we had two anchors out to port and one to starboard. Their lines were tied to the mainsail halyard, the topping lift and the staysail halyard. The genoa is on a furling gear, and its halyard, which would have been useful, was not available without lowering the 500 square-foot sail,
In our companionway, just above the sliding hatch, there is a small clinometer. I noticed that whereas it had been reading zero, it now showed a list to starboard of about 5°. The tide by then was about halfway out. Most of Jackella’s 20 tons were resting on her keel. I warned both Stephanie and Lella to keep near a handhold and to be prepared to grab it and hang onto it.
The next time I looked, the list had increased to almost 10°. Would she stay upright, or would she fall over, and if she fell, would she rise again with the tide?
At 2030, without warning, she fell. We were later told that the crash was heard in a house half a mile away. Lella was making a cup of tea at the time and was flung backwards onto the chart-table seat — which fortunately has a cushion — and banged the back of her head on the dials of the SSB radio with such force that she was dazed but still conscious.
At the time of the fall, Stephanie was on deck debating whether or not to have a pee in a bucket. She grabbed the lifelines, fearing she was going to be catapulted across the cockpit.
Down below, drawers on the upper side had come open, despite their self-locking devices, and a fire extinguisher had gone walkabout but fortunately had not discharged. There seemed to be no other damage. Most important, the mast still stood, albeit at a crazy angle.
All three anchor lines had gone slack. I can only assume that the two anchors on the port side, a 65-lb CQR, and our huge hurricane-hole Danforth, had pulled out.
I checked for damage. Later I found there was not even a dent. The hull below the curve of the bilge is quarter-inch-thick steel. At 2300, I decided to walk on the reef wearing fisherman’s wellies and recover the anchors and their lines. I thought it would be easier than trying to raise them from the inflatable later. I soon realized I was being naive. The coral was extremely uneven, with not a single level foothold; I staggered about drunkenly — even though I was holding an anchor line and using a torch — and fell into pools and crevices. Stephanie volunteered to come with me, and together we made better progress — mostly because she steadied me — and we recovered the small Danforth. The two big anchors, when we finally got to them, were in water too deep to wade into on what we took to be the edge of the reef.
Suddenly a very bright light came on. Two men, Indians, I thought, were standing waist-deep over near the shore. I gave them a shout, but they didn’t answer. For a few seconds it was very eerie standing there beside the canted-over Jackella and seeing two men in white robes now walking in the water in a circle of light from a bright lantern.
I remembered that the seacocks in the cockpit drains were open and tried to close them. But the lower one, the very one through which water might enter as the tide rose, was jammed. I sawed the end off the boat hook and whittled it down to bung size. Earlier I had noticed a smell of diesel and had closed the starboard tank fuel line.
Inside it was very difficult to move about, as if the laws of gravity had become more powerful. Getting in and out of the companionway, with the steps useless because of the angle, had become an acrobatic feat requiring the use of hands, arms, toeholds and almost teeth.
In the small hours, as we waited for the tide, I half-dozed. An hour later, I sensed there was something different; the water on deck had receded from the scuppers. We were beginning to float.
All that remained was to get off the reef somehow. Owen called on VHF and said he had looked up the tides; the next HW at 0545 was predicted to be 4 inches higher, a tremendous piece of luck. It might be just enough to get us off.
Stephanie and I got up at 0330. Jackella was afloat, bumping gently.
It seemed that HW was going to be sooner than predicted. We put the dinghy in the water and, with our 30-foot leadline sounded in all directions. The distant lights of the town of Lautoka and its wharves gave us a reference. When we found deeper water, only about 30 feet away from Jackella, it was directly in line with these useful lights. We returned to the yacht and laid out the small Danforth attached to a short chain and long lines.
At 0430 Owen arrived, full of good advice. “Motor her off!” he shouted. “Don’t waste time.” I had already recovered the CQR that had been dropped under the bow and, winching on the stern line, had begun to line up on the deeper water. There was no harm in trying the engine as well. A few minutes later, after motoring and winching, we were off.
In daylight, Stephanie and I set off in the inflatable to collect the two anchors that were still on the reef. We had left them with coiled lines buoyed with fenders. Later, Owen brought back a very pale Kirsten. Lella cooked us a full English breakfast, and we were in business again, virtually unscathed.
Jack and Lella Gush have cruised for the last 15 years on their 20-ton steel cutter Jackella, starting from Gibraltar on what may well turn out to be one of the slowest circumnavigations ever undertaken. Currently they are “resting” in Tasmania and considering selling Jackella and continuing in a smaller boat.