Suka's VHF radio had come alive with warnings, while for two days we experienced winds gusting to 40 knots as the sky gathered those awful hurricane-type clouds.
Jenny's folks were understandably lost in the tourist's enamor with the island, and they were wholly unsuspecting of the potential gravity of the impending storm. As evidence, they casually invited us to join them the following day on the hotel's scheduled boat trip and picnic. I reminded them that the forecasters were predicting the cyclone to strike the island the following day, to which they replied that if we wouldn't accompany them, then they would go without us.
During that long night of April 29 the wind strengthened in earnest. Nineteen other yachts were anchored in Cook's Bay, the crews of which were generally experienced "hurricaners" like ourselves. Jenny and I had stripped Suka topsides, and had storm readied her. We had set the anchor directly in line with the river, where the effluvial sediment would provide the best holding. Also, we had paid-out the chain to its bitter end.
Even so, our location was not perfect. The water was 40 feet deep, and the bay stood wide open to the west, meaning that should the cyclone pass us to the west, huge seas would roll into the bay, and churn the anchorage into a seething maelstrom. Still, not one yacht put to sea.
Threatened with an impending hurricane while in port, the skipper is faced with a difficult decision as whether to remain aboard in hopes of being able to solve the inevitable problems that might arise, or whether to snug the boat down, and then to seek personal safety ashore. As we were soon to learn, should the storm rage in earnest, then one's efforts at solving any problems will not be of much avail, and the sailors will find themselves aboard simply for the thrill and the ride. (Next time, Jenny and I will discreetly slip ashore.)
Anchored nearby Suka was a 30-foot wooden sloop named Solano. Her owner had flown back to the states a week earlier, and had left her in the care of the crew of a nearby yacht. Some care! She had been neither well anchored nor storm-readied. In the increasingly tempestuous night, Solano drug anchor and furrowed past us to port. Then her anchor grabbed hold, and she stopped a ways to our quarter. Now she lay a little too close for comfort, but I was loathe to re-anchor Suka in the black of night and in such strong winds. I reasoned that if the wind increased, then Solano would drag clear - a misjudgment that nearly cost us dearly.
The Hurricane Slams Cook's Bay
“A terrific gust trounced Suka broadside, slamming her onto her beam end. From our perspective, the ports resembled goldfish bowls. Involuntarily I shot out of the windward berth and landed feet-first on the base of the opposite settee. Books, charts, and everything physically unrestrained went with me. The settee cushions followed suit. Lockers flew open and disgorged their contents.”
Vicious gale force winds increased throughout the interminable night, until the full-fledged typhoon began shrieking and wailing through Suka's rigging. The air became laden in blown spume so dense that the single object visible beyond our lifelines was our nearby neighbor's masthead light. Then at 4:00 a.m, in total darkness the cyclone struck with unimaginable fury. A terrific gust trounced Suka broadside, slamming her onto her beam end. From our perspective, the ports resembled goldfish bowls, and I am certain the crosstree hit the water. Involuntarily I shot out of the windward berth and landed feet-first on the base of the opposite settee. Books, charts, and everything physically unrestrained went with me. The settee cushions followed suit. Lockers flew open and disgorged their contents, and the massive fresh water tanks beneath the cabin sole shifted with a dreadful, groaning "ca-chunk!" Suka righted herself, but moments later she was hit again. Over she went - but this time on the opposite side. Now, the port-side cushions flew out of place, the larboard cupboard doors and drawers fell away and emptied themselves. When Suka re-righted, her cabin was in extreme disarray.
The knockdowns suggested that our anchor had dragged, so once again I donned a snorkeling face-mask, and for what seemed like the hundredth time that night I stepped out the companionway. Armed with a 200,000-candlepower beam, I could see no farther forward than the main mast. Visibility aft was better, though, as utterly dismayed I saw that the wind had recently shifted direction, and that Suka now lay directly in line with the unoccupied Solano. We later learned that during both hideous gusts the fleet had drug backwards some 20 feet en masse, excepting Solano, whose anchor had previously caught something solid. A mere 30 feet astern, this boat now kicked and thrashed to her bower like an overgrown mustang. And Suka was behaving likewise. Solano's man-overboard strobe had inverted and activated, and in the void of blackness its flashing light seemed to warn us "keep away, keep away" Watching it in dread, I pondered what we would do should subsequent gusts drive us back another 30 feet.
We had fastened our inflatable dinghy astern with multiple painters affixed to its every appendage, such that we might abandon ship if necessary. This plan now seemed ludicrous. The dinghy, even though laden with its comparatively heavy floorboards, was flapping astern like a corpulent flag. Had we somehow boarded the ill-behaved boat, and had we then somehow remained upright in it, the tempest would have undoubtedly driven us straightway out to sea, regardless of how unrelenting we might have paddled. And as we went, the increasing fetch would have brought mountainous waves. Swimming ashore was not an attractive option either. The tempest was blowing from the direction of shore, which stood some 200 yards distant. Although the fetch was not great, the waves were rampaging, and near the water's surface the blast of spray was so concentrated that I doubt if a swimmer could have found air to breathe. Scuba gear would have been the only hope.
“The wind was well over a hundred knots.”
A belated dawn was beginning to show itself as Jenny and I wrestled with the dinghy, removing its floorboards, deflating it, hauling it aboard, and cramming it through the companionway and onto the chaos belowdecks. The wind had subsided somewhat, but was yet well over a hundred knots, as estimated in comparison with the winds of Reva.
Cooks Bay, Moorea Apr 12, 1983 - In the throes of Hurricane "Veena".
The cyclone has started to let up. Previously we could see no more than a few feet.
Wearing the face mask as though underwater, I crawled forward. Taking the brunt of the needle-like, piercing spray I inspected the half-dozen anti-snub nylon ropes we had affixed to the anchor chain. These were absorbing the loads, drawing taut and stretching torturously with each powerful gust. Even wearing the mask I was working half blind, but I could see that a few snubbers were beginning to chafe through. Nevertheless, I was incapable of adjusting anything. The ketch's motion was so severe, and the chain yanked at the snubbers with such violence, that to put a hand anywhere near the rode would have resulted in instant injury.
Back in the cockpit, I tried motoring Suka away from Solano by gunning Perkins full throttle, but her 50 horsepower engine eased the strain on the ground tackle not one perceptible iota. The unfathomable power of the storm had rendered us essentially helpless, and we were aboard merely as passengers on an exciting ride.
“One hand for the boat, the other for yourself" quips the nautical saying. But in the throes of a hurricane my admonition was "both hands and both knees for the boat, and while you are at it, throw a half nelson around the steering pedestal.”
"One hand for the boat, the other for yourself" quips the nautical saying. But in the throes of a hurricane my admonition was "both hands and both knees for the boat, and while you are at it, throw a half nelson around the steering pedestal." Even ordinarily simple tasks required Herculean effort. For example, wrestling a wildly gyrating 35-pound Danforth anchor to the bow, and shackling it to its warp required half an hour of struggling.
Happiness was the wind mitigating to 90 knots, and allowing us to remove our face masks. The views were beginning to expand, first to some of our neighboring yachts, which had withstood the blow, and then occasionally to shore, where the village of Pao Pao lay pitifully in shambles.
This photo was taken by one of our friends on a large charter boat, behind us. That's Suka on the left. A short while later this boat's anchor drug, and the tempest sent it into the reef. When the wind stopped it was dragged off and repaired.
As the morning progressed, the storm gradually subsided, and for the first time in ten hours we no longer questioned our survival. Then by early afternoon the wind lessened to an estimated sixty knots, and the storm began to sputter. Between gusts we were now able to power forward and laterally away from Solano, and after two hours of struggling, finally motored away far enough to drop the kedge. Using this, we winched Suka away from the wooden yacht, in case the storm should re-intensify.
During the blow, a bilingual yachtsman named Stefan had been broadcasting hourly VHF radio weather updates, in English as translated from the government broadcasts in French. He reported that Veena's eye had passed some 50 miles east of Tahiti, and that Tahiti's airport had registered a minimum barometric reading of only 980 millibars.
The late afternoon was one of brief periods of near calm, interspersed with disconcerting miniature tornadoes that struck hard and yanked the slackened yacht's cable with startling jolts. Then by late evening the storm had left us in peace.