Wavy Glass

Wednesday morning September 21 found Velic still in the small boat basin of Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Nearby was an aluminum boat of our size, Galatee, crewed by a very pleasant French couple who were also on their way west. We had checked out with customs on Tuesday for a Wednesday departure. Documents were stamped and final tasks listed.

The morning broke to dark and heavy squall clouds to the west. The squall hit Aitutaki directly with gusty winds making little white caps in the very small boat basin. Both boats had dropped an anchor near the middle of the boat basin and tied stern lines to coconut trees on shore to keep from swinging in the SE trade wind and the occasional NE wind. But the morning’s squalls reversed the wind direction and strong gusts were whipping up spray as the wind blew across our boats toward the hard shore to leeward.

It was immediately apparent something was amiss. We could see the small aluminum sailboat next to us was much farther away than it had been, and too close to shore and the concrete wharf. Randy yelled to the skipper, who, mercifully, heard the yell above the noise of the wind and driving rain. Their bow anchor was obviously dragging. No sooner had we registered that fact then we realized that it was also true for Velic. Both boats were hanging off taut stern lines tied to a coconut trees and swinging into the shore and wharf. It was small comfort remembering that most coconut trees survive most hurricanes. The aluminum boat fetched up hard against the crushed coral shore at the boat ramp, a few feet from the concrete wharf. Velic came up on their windward side. Fortunately this happened slowly enough that we had time to hang fenders between the boats, pushing the boats apart to do so. Both dinghies were between the boats! The French boat’s inflatable was acting as a giant fender, while Velic’s plywood dinghy was in danger of splintering into smithereens. By now it was blowing in the upper 30’s and everyone was soaked by the downpour. It was not yet 7:00 am, and we neither of us had even had a cup of hot coffee. We pushed Velic’s dinghy around to the port side, out of harm’s way using our long boat hook. Now what? The French aluminum boat has a lifting keel and rudder for shallow water navigation. But the rudder was hard against the coral shelf, at high risk of damage to the lifting and steering mechanisms. Our friends were very worried and anxious. We needed to pull Velic farther off, away from the other boat.

As the wind from the squall backed to the south the pressure on Velic eased a bit. We gained a little breathing space to come up with a strategy. Still hanging on the stern line to the coconut tree, we backed under motor. Velic swung to port and backwards with Randy steering and Ruth taking in slack stern line. In less than a few minutes Velic was hanging on the coconut stern line in deeper water, well clear of Galatee and the shore. There was much relief all around. As our friends readied their bow anchor, we prepared our stern anchor. Randy rowed the stern anchor to the far corner of the very small harbor and dropped it. Ruth took up all the slack. Back on board we winched Velic farther to port, farther into the basin and away from the shore. Velic was now hanging on the coconut stern line and the stern anchor, set in a V to each other. But we were still quite vulnerable to winds from the north and northeast, the direction in which the boat was facing. We slacked both stern lines in unison while motoring slowly forward. Randy then re-set the main bow anchor much farther out, and let out more chain. We then eased the bow anchor rode while taking up on the stern lines, again in unison. Now the boat was set. Secure in a triangle of three lines we finally felt safe. It was 8:15 am.

Meanwhile our friends were able to ease their stern line and motor away from the shore a few yards to drop their bow anchor, again farther out than before. The shoreline, fortunately, drops sharply a few feet out. They then centered the boat on the coconut stern line and the bow anchor rode. After discussion across the boats, Randy took our dinghy over and rowed out their stern line, but set it at right angles to their boat as the skipper desired – a mid-ship beam anchor. They were set; we were set. We made coffee.

Normally after such an adventure another nap is in order. But it was time to head west. After a light breakfast we began the final tasks for departure: Top up the fuel with a jerry jug of diesel from the nearby station. Score the final few fresh vegetables. Fill the solar shower with freely available fresh water. Fold and stow the 80% jib since the forecast was for light winds all the way. With those tasks done it was time to undo the safe and secure anchoring set just that morning. However, another squall developed on the horizon to the west. Exactly in the direction we were heading. Time to wait again. Time for a light lunch, and a short nap after all. The squall passed safely by to the southwest, not touching Aitutaki. We could go. Randy retrieved the stern anchor with the dinghy. The dinghy was hoisted aboard, disassembled, and nested under the boom. Galatee’s crew untied the stern line on the coconut tree, and Velic was now hanging on the single bow anchor.

At 1400 we raised anchor and motored out of the very small boat basin. The channel is long and winding, narrow and shallow. Ruth was steering, with Randy on the bow spotting coral. But, Randy missed a spot…Aground! Fortunately it was sand and coral rubble, not a proper coral head. With exuberant use of the motor and applying some Sea Scout experience Velic was floating again. (In defense, Randy points out that the channel was about 60′ wide at that point and the color difference between 1.5 meters aground and 1.7 meters afloat is very subtle. And he failed coloring in grade school.) Then out the pass through the coral reef and Velic was free again on the open sea heading west towards Tonga.

The passage has given us light winds to no wind at all. There are long periods when the sea looked like wavy glass. Long low undulations of leftover swells rippled by the lightest breath of wind from the southwest. Then a light zephyr teases us, slowly increasing until there’s just enough to sail on using our big “star fish” drifter. We make progress westward, if slowly …

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