Amateur anchoring, some hungry strangers and an unexpected crew member
A month ago, I was pretty sure we had anchored in every situation. We have anchored with 2 feet of water below the keel and in 70 feet of water. We have anchored with strong winds pushing one way and a strong current pushing another. Our anchor has dug in (or sometimes not dug in) to mud, sand, rock, kelp and grass. One stormy night we tangled our anchor in a sunken boat, lying all rusty and sneaky on the bottom. In Sausalito, our anchor set in the shallow water was not good enough to cope with 40 knots of wind and Halcyon went sliding across the bay without us on board.
Perhaps my favorite was when we unknowingly anchored at the base of a reversible waterfall in British Columbia. The tide was so big that the sea rose above the level of the lake and dumped seawater through the small opening in a short but defined waterfall. When the tide dropped again, the lake drained back out as a waterfall running the other way. On a high tide, we looked DOWN at the lake.
I thought we’d done it all. Until we arrived in the Tuamotus. In the last few weeks, we have had to learn how to anchor all over again. In these atolls, the bottom is thick white sand under clear water, which should be an anchoring dream. BUT! Dotted all over this beautiful sandy bottom are bommies, tall intricate structures of coral that host a city of fish. They make for amazing snorkeling but love to snag anchor chains. The first time we anchored in these bommie-d conditions was when we arrived in Hao after our 4-day passage from the Gambiers.
There is a small “marina” in Hao (really just a U-shaped concrete structure that boats can tie to, left over from the French Navy days) but when we arrived it was very full of boats. No problem, we decided. We will simply anchor in front of the village until space opens in the marina. The water in front of the village is quite deep, 40-50 feet, and is murky. This makes spotting where the bommies are quite difficult. It turns out, there are also an unusually high number of bommies.
We took a guess and dropped the anchor, backing down on it as usual, then letting out a 4:1 scope (four times as much chain as the depth of the water, a normal ratio in deep water and calm conditions). One hour later, when we attempted to hoist the anchor and take up a recently vacated spot in the marina, it would not come. First, we used the boat to push the chain this way and that in an attempt to blindly free it from the coral’s grasp. When that was fruitless, John jumped in with mask and snorkel and directed me as I ran from the cockpit (to steer the boat) to the bow (to take in or let out chain) and back again. We got the chain untangled this way, but the anchor itself was firmly wedged in a chunk of coral 50 feet down. Neither of us can free dive that deep. We do not carry dive gear onboard. There was nothing we could do to free that anchor. It was time to call in outside assistance.
While we were maneuvering around our jammed-up anchor chain, Agape sailed into the atoll behind us and snuck into the only free spot in the marina. We lost our slip but gained a good friend who is also an impressive free diver. On one breath of air, Josh dove down to the bottom, picked up our anchor out of the coral and set it on the sand where it should have been in the first place.
This was a stressful introduction to anchoring in the Tuamotus, but also a great wake up call. We would need to be very careful where we anchored and how deep the water was, especially when traveling to remote islands away from good friends with strong lungs. Not interested in a repeat of our first anchoring experience, we managed to squeeze into the “marina” just before dark as a squall set in and the wind kicked up from 15 to 25 knots.
Our anchoring drama, though, was only part of the story of our first day in the Tuamotus. As we were untangling our botched anchor job, a voice reached out to us through the VHF seeking assistance. It was Simon on the Vira Cocha III, described as an “ancient-style sailing raft,” on their approach to the pass at Hao and hoping for a boat to tow them into the lagoon. We offered our dinghy, with the caveat that we only have a 6-horsepower motor so it might not be strong enough. That’s when they informed us the raft weighed 30 tons. Right, so maybe a dinghy is not a good solution. We talked with them throughout the day and it eventually came out that the raft had been at sea for 90 days and the 8 crew members (plus pup) were almost completely out of food.
By the time the raft was nearing the entrance, the current was flowing out of the lagoon at nearly 12 knots, generating 6-foot standing waves in the pass. There was no boat willing or able to get the raft into the lagoon. Instead, they hailed a fishing boat outside the pass and three crew members managed to get to shore. With no engine or maneuverability in the strong winds and current, the raft drifted on.
We met Simon the next morning on his continued search for help for his comrades on the raft. They needed foot. Still nobody in town had a boat capable or willing to pursue the raft, now 30-40 miles away. With the incoming strong southeast wind, no sailboat was planning to leave. We had not planned to leave so soon but we couldn’t stand idly by while a crew of hungry and thwarted mariners drifted away. So, we volunteered Halcyon.
Simon climbed on board the next morning with 200 pounds of food and we headed for the pass, now gently flowing out at 3 knots. We sailed all day, communicating with the raft via satellite phone. When we finally found them, it was after dark. The sky was black, dotted with even blacker squall clouds. The wind was howling, whipping the sea into steep and unorganized waves. Basically, we had all of the dramatic elements of a good theatrical story.
We lapped the raft a few times in the dark, getting our bearings and scheming how to transfer 200 pounds of food in such uncomfortable conditions. In the end, we loaded it into big dry bags tied to buoys and life rings for flotation. With this tangled contraption prepared, John positioned Halcyon as close as we dared in the raft’s drift path and Simon and I unloaded the goods overboard. We then motored out of the way, holding a spotlight on the floating bounty until the raft drifted down onto it and scooped it out of the water. Unloaded, the raft then spooled out the empty bags behind them on a line for us to gather. We did this four times. It sounds relatively straight forward, but took nearly 5 hours and every ounce of energy I could muster. Finally, the transfer complete, we received an outpouring of appreciation, admiration and affection over the VHF as we finally set the sails and left them to their feast.
Not at all interested in turning back and bashing into the wind to return to Hao, we sailed through the night and all the next day to the next closest atoll, Raroia.
It was our second time anchoring amid bommies, our first time with a 3rd crew member. This time, we strategized ahead of time to hook buoys to the chain at intervals to float the chain above the bommies in an attempt to stay clear of them (a common method for cruising boats here). We circled and circled, trying to find the biggest sandy patch at the right depth next to a remote motu (small island). Finally, we dropped the hook and hoped for the best.
But a few days later, when we wanted to move down the island, it was quickly apparent we were once again well caught in the grips of coral. Before I could say anything, Simon had grabbed his snorkel and was in the water. He cleared the chain by hand, each spot we were ensnared requiring another free dive to the bottom. Simon, we learned, is a very proficient free diver. This became our unfortunate routine as we moved about the Tuamotus; John on the wheel, me on the anchor windlass, and Simon in the water clearing our chain as we went. It is doubly disheartening to get caught up in coral, both because it makes it difficult to hoist the anchor but also because it very quickly destroys the beautiful and delicate coral structures.
As Simon dived down once again to 30 feet to untangle our chain early one morning, I found myself contemplating how we would be handling this new stressful anchoring stuff if we had never agreed to take food to a drifting raft full of people we didn’t know. Simon would not have joined us on board, and he had very quickly become an invaluable member of the team. That chance encounter and our decision to embrace opportunity and spontaneity has greatly improved our cruising experience over the last month. Anchoring around bommies is not stressful with our 3-person team, and each time we get a little bit better at it. (As a bonus, Simon is also a marine engineer, has a great attitude, and makes delicious bread.)
Five weeks after that first disastrous anchoring job, we arrived at the south pass of Fakarava, an anchorage renowned for its pervasive bommies and difficult anchoring. But our 3-person team was prepared. We had traded out our soft sided fenders (which compressed at depths, minimizing their flotation properties) for hard sided pearl farm buoys scavenged from the beach. We calculated where on the chain each buoy should be attached. We talked through our strategy and arrived with the sun high overhead, better for spotting lurking bommies. The set felt good, with the chain hanging above the bommies in textbook fashion. When it was time to move on after a week of snorkeling with dozens of sharks in the clearest water I’ve ever seen, Simon stayed on board, confident of our textbook set (but with snorkel in hand, just in case). The anchor came up quickly and cleanly, with no kinks or hitches. Success!
We are getting better at anchoring here, slowly and patiently. With this new confidence (and the skills of our resident free diver) comes the freedom to explore little visited corners of scenic atolls, dotted with beautiful complex coral structures. Paradise.
Apologies for the long gaps between posts, but internet is very hard to find out here, usually there is barely enough to check email. There are photos to go with this post, but I just can’t get them posted. You will have to use your imagination for now…