1983: The Atol Toll
Lattitude 38, August 1983
For many South Pacific cruisers sailing the "Yellow Brick Road" from the Marquesas to Tahiti, the Tuamotu - also known as the "Dangerous Archipelago" - are a formidable obstacle. These atolls consist of large rings of coral, some up to 44 miles in length. But just ten miles from such an atoll you see nothing on the horizon but ocean. The Tuamotus are just a few feet above sea level, and the majority of the altitude comes from the coconut trees. What makes the Tuamotus even more dangerous is the strong but shifting currents that work through them. Imagine you're on your dream cruise and have spent a month or two gunkholing in the remote and primitive Marquesas. By now the urge for exploration has given way to an almost overwhelming desire for a simple cheeseburger, so you are anxious to rapidly reach Tahti. On the way past the Tuamotus a freak cyclone arises without warning. In the open sea your chances of survival would be good, but now on the lee shore of a Tuamotu atoll, they are negligible.
Ike and Debby Thompson were having just such a cruise in the South Pacific aboard their islander 36 Summer Seas. From Long Beach, they had spent a year in Hawaii before sailing to the Marquesas for a three month's stay. Now, in March 1983 they were bound for Tahiti. Without the benefit of a SatNav or the full moon, they chose not to pass directly between the Tuamotu atolls, but to take a longer and presumably safer course around them to the north.
Four days out of Nuhu Hiva weather conditions began to deteriorate. Cyclone Reva, the thrasher, swirled into existence virtually on top of Summer Seas. For the next 36 hours they battled its horrendous winds and seas. That evening Ike made his usual contact with the Maritime Mobile Net (14.113 KHz) on his ham radio. He talked to Lanry Crispell and Mollie Allen, good friends who were in fact only a day behind them aboard their yacht Secret Sharer.
"We're in trouble," Ike said. "I haven't had a celestial fix in three days, and I don't have any idea where we are. I think we might be somewhere north of Rangiroa. We're towing warps. (Ike mispronounced the term as "wraps" which sounding like "raft" was thought by some to refer to the life raft). The wind is about 85 knots out of the north with 35-foot seas and it's too rough to set sails. We're taking on water through the shaft packing gland which has come apart."
The net sprung to life as ham radio operators across the globe responded to the call. It was suggested that rags be stuffed around the shaft where it passes through the hull and this seemed to check the inflow of sea water. It was also suggested that Ike take an RDF bearing on the Tahiti AM station Radio Mahina. The nearby atoll of Rangiroa has an aero beacon, but was unavailable to Ike's RDF which lacked the BFO switch. The hams determined a 'best guess fix' for Summer Seas based on the boat's DR, the questionable RDF bearing taken On Tahiti, and on the wind direction. It was concluded that the vessel could be due north of the atoll Tikehau. Running under bare poles, presumably in towering and breaking following seas, she was heading due south. It was not known if the ill-fated yacht was equipped with a set of storm sails which would enable her to head up, and perhaps avoid the possible lee shore. Ike and Debby were by now near exhaustion anyway. In the unrelenting fury of Reva, setting storm sails seemed out of the question. Ike's last contact was "We're okay for the time being I'll contact you on the radio in the morning "
Summer Seas was never heard from again. A three-week search by the U.S Coast Guard and French Navy turned up not a trace.
The 37-ft cutter Secret Sharer was in the same vicinity when Reva raised its sinister head. Fortunately the boat was in a position to head east Into open ocean, out of the cyclone's grasp. A few days later when the cyclone had moved far to the west, owners Larry and Mollie decided to resume their passage to Tahiti by heading back through the atolls.
While in the very heart of the "Dangerous Archipelago" the conditions again began to worsen. They hove-to during the night while keeping a cautions eye on their SatNav. In the pre-dawn hours it became too rough to remain hove-to, and they made the unfortunate decision to turn and run with the storm under reduced sail. In a bizarre twist of fate, Reva was headed back for another strafing run on the Tuamotus, and Secret Sharer was unknowingly rushing headlong towards a rendezvous.
By morning the sea had turned into utter turmoil and the vessel was being tossed about with unimaginable violence. "I sat at the helm trying not to think about the chaos down below," Millie said. "Everything we owned was on the floor and soaking wet." Larry called the ham net and had his worst suspicions about Reva's location confirmed.
With the help of Don McClean, who was operating his ham radio from his boat Carioca in the Marquesas, they began to formulate a plan of escape. Caught between the eye of the cyclone in the open sea to the west, and the invisible maze of coral reefs to the east, Larry had no choice but to turn north into the full violence of the storm and make whatever headway possible.
On the first attempt to head north, the working jib was immediately ripped in two. This was then unhanked and the storm staysail and trysail hoisted. Working on the foredeck was a monumental task. The seas were mountainous and occasionally the boat would plummet off a breaking crest, plunging on her beam ends into the yawning trough. When this happened the propeller would come out of the water and the engine race madly.
They struggled all that day and on into the night; Mollie steadfast at the helm while Larry worked on the sails, engine, and the navigation. Twice a brand new half-inch storm jib sheet parted with a thunderous crack. Later the jib track car exploded under the strain. Adding to the unnerving scream of the wind in the rigging, the storm-try vibrated with such intensity that several times the two thought the boat had run aground.
After nine hours awash at the helm, Mollie stumbled below onto the mass of debris on the cabin for a brief respite. "It wasn't very restful though " she reflected, "mast partners kept falling onto my head." Later she returned for eleven more hours at the helm.
With the wild gyrations of the boat, the SatNav would not produce a fix unless the antenna was handheld in a vertical position. Then in a rare case of satellite blanking, the unit reported no available passages for the next nine hours.
As the endless night wore on, the storm grew more intense. Even worse, the wind began to shift to the northwest. making the nearby atolls a deadly lee shore. Larry and Mollie were now fighting for their lives. Then the engine died. After changing filters and purging the lines, it started, only to stop again later. Just before daylight the long-awaited SatNav fix flashed across the display. It was not good news.
This is it!" Larry hollered to Mollie. "We have two-and-a-half knot drift and we're four miles directly upwind of Kaukura. Here's your tennis shoes and life jacket. Put them on so we might make it when we go onto the reef. If we don't do something now we're not going to make it!"
Their heading was altered to a little more off the wind. Larry worked frantically to start the engine. which with the storm sails, was their only way of making even the slightest amount of headway. With the boat's wild motion the half empty tanks were aerating the fuel line. Fuel was hand-pumped from one tank to fill the other. After bleeding the lines the engine started and ran beautifully.
"We knew that our survival depended on doing everything in our power to get away from that' atoll," recalled Mollie. Secret Sharer was desperately clawing away from the jaws of the coral reef. An hour later the SatNav produced another fix. Like a deepening plot dreamed up for a Hollywood script, the drift toward was still overpowering any forward speed The atoll Kaukura was now only three miles away.
Then the winds miraculously began to abate, and Secret Sharer almost imperceptibly started gaining seaway. Reva's coordinates were given on the radio, and a distant voice said, "It's past you now. You've made it!"
Five months later I'm relaxing in the cockpit of my ketch Suka, which lies to her bower in the idyllic anchorage of Fare, Huahine. Jenny pokes at the steaks sizzling on the barbeque while Larry, Mollie and I sip our drinks and watch the setting sun lay a blaze of gold over the western horizon. Having spent a few months rambling through the Societies, and with the hurricane season hopefully behind us, we discuss plans to make our way to the Tongas.
The conversation drifts back to the many similar evenings spent together in the Marquesas, where Secret Sharer, Suka, Summer Seas and a few other boats sat together for a month. We wonder about the ultimate fate of the Summer Seas.
Larry suspects that the boat ran into Tikehau or another nearby atoll. Sheer conjecture, but we wonder if a SatNav might not have prevented the disaster.
As the vessel was making her way around the Tuamotus, the weather started to worsen. It would seem prudent to turn away from the deadly reefs and steer for open seas at the first hint of trouble. Summer Seas, however, chose to continue on a beam reach in an attempt to skirt past the atolls which they thought lay somewhere directly downwind. A SatNav might have shown that the counter-currents were drastically retarding their distance made good, and that their only option was therefore to head back out to sea. When conditions later reached hurricane proportions and the yacht could no longer continue sailing, they were trapped.
Clearly, the SatNav was the vital element in Larry and Mollie's successful efforts. Without it, Secret Sharer would have become another tangle of rubble on the shores of Kaukaura. I asked them about what other items may have played an important role in their battle with Reva. They emphasized the importance of having a strong and seaworthy boat which could withstand the terrible beating of such a storm. Also high on there list was the set of heavy duty storm sails which had been hoisted just for practice before leaving San Diego. Larry also reported that the ham radio enabled them to obtain a world of helpful advice.
In retrospect, Larry believes it might have been possible to avoid the worst of the storm altogether, and perhaps herein lies the important lesson of all. While hove-to in the midst of the archipelago - the night before their encounter with Reva - the conditions deteriorated further and he decided to turn and run before the wind and seas. This nearly fatal decision was based on two facts: I) NMO, the NOAA weather station in Hawaii, was broadcasting the cyclone's position and heading incorrectly. Almost ten hours after the cyclone had reversed its course and headed back for the Tuamotus, NMO was still reporting it to be heading away to the Southwest. Accordingly, Larry presumed himself to be running in a mere gale. And 2) the "gale" was temptingly heading towards the desired direction of travel.
The October 1981 issue of Cruising World featured an important article by Bernard Moitessier entitled "The Signs of a Hurricane Approaching". In it, Moitessier states: "Never run before the wind when encountering a hurricane, for to do so will carry you directly into the storm's center and fury." Bernard also spells out the procedure to follow in the event of encountering a revolving storm. Heady stuff that would make good wallpaper on the bulkhead of any cruising yacht.
Larry concludes: "We had heavy winds and swell, and the ominous indications in the cloud pattems. We should have placed more emphasis on the signs all around us than on the conflicting NMO weather data which later proved to be in error." "
"Have your cruising plans been daunted by this experience?" I asked.
No, not really." Larry pondered . "I think we were a bit naive when we left California. The real world of cruising is a very different experience from the heavenly one often presented In the glosses. Cruising is a mixture of both; we enjoy these pleasant anchorages immensely and we look forward to discovering all the wonderful places along the way, but at the same time we keep a watchful eye to the weather conditions and the storm sails close at hand."
- R. Jardine; Bora Bora