What a Day II

by Robby Gray

April 23, 2004


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            Out in the middle of nowhere, situated between the island groups of Tonga and the Cook Islands, you will find Niue. Shaped like a pancake on a griddle, Niue makes a very unique landfall. On the horizon Niue looks like a long rectangular bump but, on coming close to the island, the long rectangular bump turns into sheer walls rising from a coral platform, the platform extending about 100 feet from the walls and the walls rising hundreds of feet into the air.

The locals, most of them "Kiwis" from New Zealand, were the friendliest people I have ever met. Almost every time we went to shore we would come back to our dinghy to find papayas and husked coconuts laid neatly inside. The island was beautiful and untouched, and the diving is some of the best in the world. The only problem was that the anchorage was a bad one.

The bay we were to anchor in, the only anchorage on the island, was just a shallow indentation in the side of the island and the water was over a hundred feet deep, so we would have to tie to a mooring. Every wind direction but East makes the anchorage rolley or even dangerous--west was very bad. As the trades are from the east, though, the anchorage is generally not too bad.

The passage from Suwarrow was a rough one so we were only too glad to finally make it to our destination, Niue, even if it was in the dark. The bay, as I have so described, did not have any hazards and was wide open so we did not think it a problem. To make things even better, there was a boat already in the anchorage named Sojourner and the couple on board, Steve and Jennifer, was more than happy to help us in. We did not get a good rest that night! The wind was just about dead but it was anything but East so we rolled and rolled. We rolled worse than we ever had before, save maybe for Grand Turk. When the sun came up that morning we were all burnt out. First we had a rough passage, then a horribly rolley anchorage.

 We watched the weather closely and we were told the wind would stay light but it was not to be. Because of how rough the anchorage can be and because of the tidal change the only way to get to shore is a huge concrete wharf rising maybe 15 feet out of the water. It is no problem because there are some steps built into the concrete sides of the wharf but, if you want to leave your dinghy there, you had to haul it onto the wharf with a crane. In the morning, since we did not really know how this system worked yet and my dad just needed to check in, Michael dropped my dad off on shore.

My dad was on shore for a few hours and during that time the anchorage turned frothy. We were now on a lee shore, the wind being out of the west. The wind just kept getting higher. Gigantic swells were rolling in but my dad was now back at the wharf and needed to get back to the boat. Jennifer on Sojourner also needed a ride to her boat but Sojourner’s dinghy was too small to handle the weather so we worked out, via radio, to pick her up as well. Having brought my dad in, Michael knew the best of us how to do pick my dad up so Michael started motoring the 100 yards or so to the wharf. The only times I could see Michael was on the crests of the swells and soon I could not see him at all through the froth. Since I could not see what was going on, I can only relate what happened by what my dad and Michael told me later.

The steps built into the side of the wharf led down to a small, slimy platform about two feet off the water. The crest of each swell pushed the water level up several feet surging over the platform, the trough of the swells dropping the water down several feet. Each time the water on the platform attempted to fill the trough forming a small waterfall. On his first pass, Michael was almost capsized and dashed against the wall but on his second pass he expertly rode, or should I say surfed, a swell in while riding the next swell out. After what seemed a lifetime, I saw Michael appear again and soon he and my dad were back on board unscathed but wet.

The situation had gone from being uncomfortable to being dangerous. We had two large lines tied to the mooring but, with the swell, the strain on them was just incredible. Inside nothing could be sat anywhere. On deck the gunwales were almost submerging with each roll and our bow was plunging into the seas. For awhile, to no avail, we just spent our time on board going from spot to spot hoping to find a place to be able to relax as our lines, no matter what we did, continued to chafe away. Within 30 seconds of each other our mooring lines blew out and we started to blow into the reef platform that was only about 100 yards away. The wind by this time was 35 to 40 knots. My mom had just started the engine seconds before in preparation for such an emergency so my dad put it into gear and we started to motor away from the island and destruction. Having to beat into the wind and seas, we were only making two knots at most. We had gotten virtually nowhere when our engine quit, as they always seem to do at times like these. The horrible high pitched scream, for you cannot call it a buzz, of our engine alarm was the sound of death to our boat and maybe even to us. Thankfully, someone turned off the key and we were left with the wailing of the wind. On giving the engine one of his famous 20 second bleeds, my dad found the fuel to be full of water. It made sense as after our passage we were low on fuel and the pitching and rolling of our boat would have mixed anything that was sitting in the bottom of our tank into the fuel. At the time, though, things were so hectic that none of us had time to think of these things—all we knew was that we had to get our sails up!

Our main was only a quarter of the way up when my dad lost the end of our Lazy Jacks® and they got tangled with the main. The mainsail would go no higher. After a moments pause of desperate helplessness, we ran back to the cockpit and unfurled the genoa. Pulling the genoa as tight as we could get it, we barely squeaked out of that bay. Some before and some after us all the boats in the bay ended up being forced to leave as well.

We sailed out several miles and that afternoon the wind dropped to literally zero, I mean, even our dingy, that was trailing off the stern, passed us in the night. So, at this point, we had been through a long hard passage, terrible rolling, several minutes of terror, and now we all had to take our watches again. Late in the night or early morning the sea quieted down a lot, at least it seemed that way at the time, and the world was quiet.

The next morning the wind was still just about dead and we were all so exhausted that we were working on instinct more than anything. With our sails barely filling, we sailed back into the bay and started our approach to the mooring. Not wanting to miss the mooring and sail into the fringing reef, we took one of our old, extremely long, jibsheets and rigged it to its full length to toss to Steve off Sojourner, who would be in his dinghy next to the mooring, and who would then tie us off. Everything went perfectly and soon we could all, finally, breath a sigh of relief.

Later we were to learn that the storm was caused by two pressure systems, probably two lows, colliding and creating a squash zone that was right over our anchorage. Basically we found ourselves on a lee shore, without an engine, in hundreds of feet of water, with only a headsail right smack in the middle of something very like the Queen's Birthday Storm