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The Lessons of Fear

When people learn that I sailed across the Pacific from Mexico to New Zealand, they marvel. A woman of 29 years captaining her own boat with only one crew? Invariably, their first question is: "Were you ever truly scared, I mean, terrified?"

The answer is, "Yes!"

The forecast called for gale-force conditions, but the day dawned clear and seemingly benign.
Nicki, my adventuresome 23-year-old Canadian crew member, and I had made three passages together since we met in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. We had sailed through the Tuamotus and on to Tahiti on board Hio Avae, my sturdy Santana 37, which we always call simply Hio. We had become confident in ourselves and in each other, perhaps too confident.

The morning we prepared to sail from Tahiti to nearby Moorea, friends encouraged us to wait a day. "Have you heard the forecast?" they asked. Of course we had and we knew to expect gale-force conditions for the short passage. We decided it would be good practice for us to sail in some serious wind. Plus, we were impatient to catch up with friends we hadn' t seen since the Marquesas, two island groups and a lifetime ago.

When we passed the northeast tip of Moorea, the wind began to howl.
Wary of the forecast conditions, Nicki and I tiptoed out of windless Papeete. We were met by a light, fickle wind outside the reef, but still we motorsailed cautiously under reefed main and tiny staysail. We eyed the sailboat a few miles ahead for a better sense of the conditions there. Without enough wind to fill her big jib, Pamda Bear was wallowing in the lumpy seas.

Where was that big, bad wind? Our staysail fluttered and was backwinded as we motored on, so Nicki pulled it down and we continued under reefed main. The conditions disappointed us, we felt ready for a short test in 35 to 45-knot winds.

"Maybe we'd be better off unrolling the big jib," Nicki suggested as we watched the "windicator" read eight to 15 knots. I was against this since we'd had problems with the hank-on roller-furling system on our last passage, from Rangiroa, Tuamotus, to Tahiti. Squalls packing winds over 25 knots had shocked the system and the top and bottom of the furler would not work in sync under heavier loads. We'd fought the wind and sail to get the jib rolled up, dangerous. I was sure that the rig had suffered from those flapping battles but I hadn't gone aloft to check. I didn't want to subject Hio's rig, sail, or crew to any unnecessary stress.

We turned to the iron genny instead. Confused seas with no wind were rocky and uncomfortable, but not a  problem. We just wished we could hear Janet Jackson over the cranking engine.

We powered past Pamda Bear, whose crew was making a valiant attempt to sail. The wind kept teasing us, dodging between five and 18 knots until we hit the northeastern tip of Moorea. Then it started to howl. I left the motor idling as Nicki pulled up the staysail. The sound of the motor was comforting, rumbling beneath the building whine of the wind in the rigging.

"The wind kept teasing us, dodging between five and 18 knots"

The staysail and reefed main were a perfect combination for the gusty 25 to 35 knot breeze. The idling engine felt good and heavy in Hio's belly as she heeled away from wind that was flattening waves and punching up mists of spray. The force of the wind, the quick lunges of the boat, the sea spray off the tips of whitecaps, and the chaotic flapping of our sun awning wove little threads of tension around me. The tension helped me concentrate. This was the test we were looking for and we were sailing well. I was proud.

As we drew closer to the pass into Cook's Bay, the wind freshened. The staysail started flapping, which I interpreted as Hio's command, "Take it down." "Can't we wait until we get through the pass where we might get a little protection from the wind?" Nicki asked, already drained by all the running up and down she had been doing this trip. I felt badly for her and hesitated. Even after seven months as captain, I had a hard time giving orders.

After struggling to get the sails down, we motored toward the pass.
The staysail went kaflap again as Hio spoke, "Take it down." I relayed Hio's order and Nicki went forward. Winds gusting to 40 knots made bringing down even this little handkerchief of sail difficult, but Nicki muscled it to the deck and tied it up with characteristic precise, stubborn attention. She came back to the cockpit drenched.

We began to motor toward the pass, into powerful offshore winds. A voice in my head said, "Now, the main, take it down!" Was it flogging as well? I don't remember. When I mouthed my tentative order, Nicki replied, "OK, but taking the staysail down sucked. Can't we wait until we're inside and more protected?" My guilt answered, "OK." But Hio said, "Now!" Again, I relayed her command to Nicki.

Nicki pushed out a big breath, collected her limbs, and lumbered forward, hand-over-hand against the bounce, spray, and gusts. I held the main halyard with one hand, pushing the wheel with the other, feeding the line to Nicki when she was ready at the mast. "I'm not gonna flake it!" she hollered over the howling wind. I agreed she shouldn't bother but knew her too well, she couldn't just pile the sail on top of itself and crash-tie it. I laughed as she tugged the sail into flaked perfection, still fighting the relentless wind. I was going to need that laugh.

With sails down and secured, our shoulders hunkered against the relentless wind, we pushed into Cook's Bay. Ahead, the bay was all whitecaps and ripping windsurfers. I looked longingly at the relative calm of an outer anchorage tucked between island and reef and pointed it out to Nicki. "We should just drop anchor over there!" But we came to Moorea to join our cruising friends aboard Distant Beat, Locura, and Only Blue, and they were all anchored in the main bay. I was still eyeing the flat blue reef anchorage when I heard Nicki curse.

I thought our sun awning was snapping in the wind, but then I felt Hio start to pump. Thudda-thudda-thudda, beneath the crackling kaflaps, which were building in volume and speed. The big jib had sprung loose. Still rolled tightly at its foot, the upper third had unfurled and tangled around itself. The wind pounced on that fraction of sail, took it into its teeth, and started gnawing like a puppy with a chew-toy. Hio wheeled sideways toward the nearby anchorage.

The boat and I pushed and pulled each other in a herky-jerky struggle for control.
I should have listened to Hio's clear direction as I had twice already. But this time, it was hard to hear her over the sounds of flapping sail, pumping mast, rumbling engine, and the buzz of my own barely contained panic. I wrenched the helm hard to starboard, fighting to point upwind toward the shallow head of the bay and our friend's boats.

Hio and I played tug-of-war in the deep entrance of Cook's Bay, with the engine giving me no advantage. I would let Hio pull us downwind until we drew terrifyingly close to the fringing reef, then I would pull her, cranking the helm around to climb back into the bay. To add to the drama, a cruise ship, squatted across the outer part of the bay. The ship blocked our passage like a bejeweled sumo wrestler.

As Hio and I pushed and pulled each other, looping between the ship and the reef, Nicki dashed back and forth, struggling with the sail, to roll it back up or free it. She couldn't drop it since it was twisted around the headstay like a pretzel. In previous roller-furling crises, we had been able to free the sail with a combination of strategy and luck. Today, we had neither. "I don't know what to do!" Nicki hollered.

"I can't help you, I can hardly control the boat! We need to call for help!" With me chained to the helm and Nicki fighting with the jib, we needed a third person. We made six or seven frantic circles, each time drawing closer to the reef and its pass. I couldn't think of anything new to do until the words "sea room" flashed into my consciousness. Somewhere along the line, I had been told, "When in trouble, get away from land, seek sea room."

I shouted to Nicki: "Sea room! We've got to get sea room! I'm going back out the pass!"

"She jumped down to the radio to make a last-ditch call for help."

I pointed Hio toward the channel. Nicki reckoned this was exactly the wrong course of action, so she jumped down to the radio to make a last-ditch call for help. The chaotic rumble of the diesel engine inside and the crashing jib outside made it extremely difficult to hear James on Only Blue, who responded to Nicki's desperate call. He said something about spinnaker halyards, then about anchoring.

Nicki shouted his advice through the companionway. He had said: "I know it's flogging around and sounds like the whole mast is going to come down, but you won't be able to do anything about it out at sea anchor." Nicki relayed this to me with a tone as if to say, "If you go out the pass, we're doomed." I tried to imagine Locura's dinghy with 20 horsepower charging out the pass to rescue us. I couldn't picture it and that clinched the deal.

I wheeled us around again to starboard and eyed that relatively calm, light blue, narrow anchorage that Hio had chosen before this crisis began. I knew I couldn't get Hio to climb all the way into the bay with the jib overpowering the helm, but I might be able to get her to crab sideway into that tiny spot. "Nicki, I'm going to try to get us over there." I saw her face set with determination, relief, and fear, and knew she approved.

We navigated by way of the differing colors, trying to stay in the dark-blue water.
With no time to look at a chart or the depthsounder, we edged our way into the anchorage by following the changing blues of the lagoon, trying to hug the darker shades. Nicki kneeled over the windlass, anticipating my signal to drop the anchor. I threaded Hio into a small space between a shiny, Papeete-registered powerboat and a buoy. As I edged up toward lighter blue, a gust blew us off before I could holler, "Drop!" I had to make another tight circle.

The machine gun sound of flapping jib and our rushing speed brought the powerboat folks on deck. I could see their muscles flexing under their touristy T-shirts and feel their eyes widen behind sunglasses. Hio was plunging right at them as they watched helplessly.

The gale force wind still controlled the boat. It punched at the jib and overrode Hio's engine. I pushed the helm hard over, but Hio would not turn. So I gave in, steering Hio around the back on the reef side of the powerboat.

"What are you doing?" Nicki screamed, running back from the bow. "That's shallow water there!" As if I didn't know.

"I'm... I can't... I've got to go behind the powerboat before I can turn up. If I can turn up." I was certain the story would end there. My life would change there. Coral would saw Hio wide open, filling her splintered fiberglass hull with salt water and seashells. So quickly, so out of control, my cruising dream would die.

I held on. I could speak only three words: "Please God. Please Lord. Please, please, please." Nicki, hearing those words, watching my eyes, knew then that it was time to panic.

Seconds stretched out into timelessness as we held on. All we could do was watch. The sea was the airy green of lime sorbet, the color of shallow water. We watched gray-green, fist-shaped coral heads beneath us rise from the sorbet sea, and we held our breath. We learned that you can hold your breath and pray at the same time.

"We learned that you can hold your breath and pray at the same time."

As we passed behind the powerboat, the wind reined itself in and let us turn. We pulled up around the powerboat and slid into darker blue with the tourists eyes still wide and glued to Hio and her scrambling girl crew. I jerked my head back and forth, seeking "swinging room" and depth. I knew that I wouldn't have much time before the wind would blow us off again. I was desperate to hook Hio away from that reef since it would not give us a second chance.

There was no time to be indecisive or perfect. "Drop! Drop! Drop!"

I couldn't see Nicki as she squatted in front of the dinghy on the foredeck, but I heard the anchor go. Then, I heard it stop before it could have hit bottom. "Nicki! What's up? Drop! Drop!" I later discovered that the chain had jumped off the bow roller and was scraping over the teak rail. Nicki had to heave the 66-pound Bruce to shift the chain back onto the roller before she could continue. She said her own little prayer to keep her fingers intact.

The steady gusts pushed us back quickly toward the powerboat and the reef. The chain flowed out with a reassuring clicking rhythm. I was confident that the Bruce would hold us, but did we really have enough room? The powerboat was awfully close by. As I watched us back down, I heard Nicki call: "I see two lines on the chain what does that mean?" It meant that we were near the end of our 200-foot chain. "Too much chain! Bring it in!" I hoped the powerboaters didn't speak English.

As Nicki drew in the extra chain and the anchor bit, Phil, off Distant Beat, ripped up alongside Hio in his tenderour hero. He climbed quickly aboard and moved straight to the bow to help Nicki with the jib. I stayed at the helm, conscious of the swinging three to five feet of space between Hio and the powerboat. Once they saw we were hooked, the powerboat crew, without a word and barely a wave, quickly picked up anchor and sidled purposefully as far away from us as possible.

The wind still howled, but I could hear myself breathe again. I was drained, stunned. We hadn't gone aground, lost our headstay, or been dismasted. I watched Nicki and Phil tame the jib on deck. When I went below to check the depth, I was staggered to see that we sat in seven feet, Hio draws six. In our charge behind the powerboat, we had been in even shallower water. We had been blessed, or lucky. Either way, I was grateful.

Months later, and far from reef country, it still makes my head hurt to think about what would have happened if I had sought sea room that day. I can see us, pushed back out of the pass and into oblivion. OK, maybe oblivion is a bit dramatic.

Threatening situations at sea demand endless creativity. Hopefully we would have figured something out or the wind would have died down. Still, my imagination can effortlessly conjure up that "oblivion." It took me quite a while to shake the residual fear from that experience. I believed in myself, in Nicki, and in our capabilities, but I was haunted by what had happened. Day after day, we postponed our departure from Cook's Bay. I was in no hurry to go back out to sea having witnessed what wind can do.

Huahine's waves and Niue's caves finally beckoned us to continue our South Pacific voyage. I give most of the credit for my willingness to answer this call to my boat. Hio's motherly movement, under Moorea's green canopy, had gently rocked me back to confidence. Even so, I flinched involuntarily as we left that harbor.

Avoiding Disaster

We might have avoided that scary experience altogether had we heeded the marine forecast and postponed our departure for a day. We would, however, probably have continued to have problems with our hank-on roller-furling system, which is best suited for light-wind daysailing.

If this were to happen again, we'd make the following changes:

  • Resolve the furler problem at first sign of trouble.

The roller-furling system didn't work well in higher winds. I first discovered this months before, anchored in the Marquesas, when a nighttime gust unfurled the top of the jib just as it did on this passage. I should have fixed it, or stopped using it. Procrastinating always increases boat problems exponentially.

  • Use spinnaker halyards as sail ties.

Had we been able to hear James over the chaos, we would have followed his advice to wrap the spinnaker halyards around the loose sail to take the wind out of it and tie it up.

  • Take full advantage of the engine's horsepower.

I have this innate fear of loud, revving motors. Power tools, even drills, jigsaws, and blender, give me the heebie-jeebies when they're on full power. I was too conservative with the rpms when the jib was trying to overpower us. I could have maneuvered more effectively with more throttle.


Kristin Sandvik is offline  
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