Features August 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: Things That Go Bump

Learning of the loss of two other boats cruising the South Pacific, the crew of Calypso gets a rude reality check. Even when it seems you’re doing everything right, danger looms, especially when you’re tired.

Nick Nicholson, former editor of Practical Sailor, and Maryann Mecray built the 40-foot, Saga-class Calypso from a bare hull in the driveway of their Newport, Rhode Island, home. After departing New England late in 1997, Calypso worked her way south to Bermuda and through the West Indies to Trinidad and Venezuela, before heading west. Last winter, Nick and Maryann transited the Panama Canal and are now in the South Pacific, heading for New Zealand. As one of three official measurers of the America’s Cup, Nick’s views on high technology are always fresh and insightful. Offshore Log appears in Practical Sailor the first issue of each month.


Much of our cruising has been pretty uneventful. We have had little really bad weather, and most of the systems on the boat work pretty much as expected. Sometimes, however, our complacency is interrupted by a harsh dose of reality.

Since entering the Pacific, we have stayed in regular touch with 20 or more boats via SSB radio—the cruiser’s equivalent of the old-fashioned telephone party line. We keep a regular early-morning radio schedule with boats scattered from Fiji and Tonga back toward the Galapagos, covering more than 40° of longitude. We share gossip, navigation information, news.

The news isn’t always good.

In the space of just a few weeks in early summer, two of the cruising boats that crossed the Pacific at about the same time as Calypso were lost. In both cases, the husband/wife crews were rescued.

Lucifero, a 37' English cruiser/racer in one of the round-the-world rallies, sank in a matter of minutes after colliding with a floating object near Tonga. Fortunately, her distress call was heard by another rally boat, and the crew—a couple believed to be in their 70’s—were quickly picked up. The cruising radio net spent an anxious 24 hours before the rescue was reported.

We had seen Lucifero many times over the last 18 months between the Caribbean and the Pacific. She was a well-maintained, typical production boat with no apparent weakness, but her hull proved no match for whatever she hit.

Likewise, the American cruising boat Carina Vela, lost on a reef in French Polynesia just a few weeks later, was a sturdy, well-maintained boat with an experienced crew. Carina Vela was anchored next to Calypso in Tahiti for several weeks, and although we had no more than a waving acquaintance with her crew, her loss shook us up. They were, after all, no different from dozens of cruising couples, including ourselves.

In the early morning, Carina Vela hit a reef near the south end of Huahine. At this time, we do not know if they were attempting to negotiate a pass, or if they were carried off course by currents.

When the boat was pulled off the reef in a salvage attempt a few days later, a large chunk of the bottom came away, and she went down almost instantly in 180' of water. It’s no wonder that insurance rates for two-person cruising are so high.

Cruising Dangers
The fringing reefs surrounding many Pacific islands are incredibly dangerous. Even on the leeward side of the islands, currents and waves always seem to set you onto the reefs. We sailed parallel to the fringing reef on Bora Bora for about three miles while approaching the pass to the island, and several times found the swells working us uncomfortably close to the unforgiving coral.

Likewise, approaching the western pass to Raiatea just before dusk, rollers more than 10' high obscured the entrance until we were right on top of it. Only intense concentration and absolute attention to navigation—plus a big dose of awareness-inducing adrenaline—keep you safe in these situations. In the unmarked or poorly marked passes of less-popular islands the risks are even higher. Add crew fatigue and the desire to get to an anchorage before dark and you have the potential for disaster.

A few days earlier, we had approached Bora Bora after a 26-hour sail from Tahiti marked by contrary light winds and a half-dozen blinding squalls with winds from 35 to almost 50 knots. With a single reef in the main, we were underpowered in the light stuff, vastly overpowered in the squalls. Running off before the squalls was the only answer, as putting in the second reef while sailing downwind with the main plastered to the spreaders was not an option. Heading the boat up to luff the main for reefing in those conditions isn’t much of an option, either.

The extra expense and weight of an ultra-low-friction mainsail luff arrangement such as Harken’s Battcar system suddenly seemed insignificant compared to the advantages. A few attempts to pull down the luff of a 400-square-foot main in a 40-knot squall pounds a fair amount of sense into even the thickest head.

After 24 hours of this, I was not at my sharpest. We wanted desperately to make it around to the east side of Bora Bora while the light was good. A spectacular anchorage in shallow water was far more appealing than anchoring in 90' depths on the western side of the island. Unfortunately, reaching this anchorage requires eyeball navigation around coral heads as well as traversing a short, shallow, twisting, current-ripped channel. This channel is only shown on the French chart, which we had. Sensing the fatigue in my voice (we were in radio contact), PS reader John Hamm—who had also handled lines for us in the Panama Canal—volunteered to lead us through. Roaring around from the anchorage in his dinghy, John led us past obstacles to a sandy spot in 11' of water, where we gratefully dropped the hook.

This type of help is typical of the cruisers we have met, and it has saved many boats and their tired crews from grief. Of course, you must have complete faith in your human guide, and a healthy dose of skepticism for the information in existing cruising guidebooks. Charlie’s Charts of French Polynesia—the best of the cruising guides to this region—says that a draft of 6' can be taken along this route. Calypso now draws a full 7'. After a few trips through the channel, I felt that a competent navigator could get through with just under 10' of draft without risking his boat unduly.

On the other hand, without the right chart and some local knowledge, even a dinghy would get into trouble here.

Deep Water
For the first time, we anchored in water approaching 100' deep in Raiatea. With darkness falling (it drops like a curtain in the tropics) we had no choice but to drop the hook in deep water inside the reef and wait until morning to move to a better spot. Because I had failed to shift the last 175' of the main anchor chain into the forward locker, we were limited to using 225' of chain—just over 2:1 scope. It was a restless night.

With our 60-pound CQR on over 200' of chain, we have 400 pounds of ground tackle deployed. With all 400' out, that’s about 700 pounds of steel for the windlass to set and retrieve. We have actually seen a few cruising couples do this with a manual windlass, but they are younger and tougher than we are.

If you have heavier-than-normal ground tackle, you need a correspondingly larger windlass. We have found it better to size the windlass to the ground tackle than to the boat. Our main anchor package would be suitable for a medium-displacement cruising boat 55' long.

Pay Attention
Complacency is the enemy of the cruiser. After nearly 12,000 miles of cruising in Calypso over the last three years, we are keenly aware that having survived this far is no guarantee of future success. Just when you back off and relax, the ocean’s going to get you. The price of freedom in long-range cruising is not just a matter of dollars. It is also measured by the new gray hairs on your head.

And for some, the cost is the loss of their boat.

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