At three knots, one has some time to react. Kate had gone up to the bow to watch for shallow patches and to drop the anchor once we had reached a safe spot. An old fishing boat occupied the exact lat and long that our cruising guide had given us, so we decided to move away from him, in case the wind should pick up and he swung around on his anchor. We had 6 - 10 metres of water under the keel and did a s-l-o-w speed figure eight, as we always do, checking the depth in the area so that when we spun on the centrepoint that was our anchor drop location, we would know that the water was deep enough. At two knots, we putted away from him, planning to drop our pick five or six boat-lengths north (and along the shore, rather than towards the shore). I was at the helm when suddenly … clunk and CRUNCH!
Kate pitched forward, off balance into the bow rail as she sang out, “REEF!” I knew instantly what had happened. In the time that I took to assess that Kate and the rest of the crew were OK, the forward momentum had been mostly absorbed. The current took the stern to a 45° angle from what we were traveling and we came to a crunching halt.
This was the WORST initial thing that can happen to a boat. Reefs are rock-hard and can be jagged - especially just after impact with a boat. We have a fiberglass hull that can withstand a huge amount of blunt-force impact (such as crashing through waves), but would be easily pierced by the sharp edge of a coral reef. Sinking was a real possibility. I had a true moment of terror as I imagined Craig’s boat, along with all of our possessions, quickly sinking - right there under my control. We needed to get off of that reef ... and fast.
Both Kate and I worked to remain calm. How were we going to get off the reef, and get off quickly? The water was calm, but that could change in minutes. I also didn’t want to cause panic in Charles and Heather, who didn’t have much sailing experience. Kate’s advice of “back straight off, same way we came in,” didn’t work. The boat had turned in the current and was being obstructed by something. I quickly reversed, but heard the grating sound of fibreglass being scraped after moving just a bit - a horrible, horrible sound for a captain or crew to hear. After trying a few other ways to get off the reef, I called Kate back from the bow to discuss a strategy. Time was still of the essence.
I suggested getting into the water so I could look at how the boat was grounded. That would help me understand (as helmsman) what I needed to do, and in which order, to get us off the reef. I quickly grabbed a mask, snorkel and fins to be able to round the open water side of the boat and evaluate. Once in the water, I could see that the stern of the boat needed to be swung to the port side. The keel was stuck in the sand beside the end of the reef. The rudder had a big chunk of coral directly behind it and we weren't going to be able to back off until our stern moved to port. I made my way back up to the swim platform, advised Kate of what I had seen and told her of my strategy. We were going to reverse with the wheel turned hard to port, which *should* swing Popeye around.
A deep breath, then I slowly put Popeye into reverse with wheel hard over. I increased the engine revs until I started to feel some movement. The stern begun to swing around to the angle that we had come in on, then I straightened the helm and hit the throttle, full reverse.
Popeye gently backed off the reef and into deeper water. I cannot describe how relieved I was, but knew I was just running on adrenaline and wanted to get to a safe spot and get the anchor down. We headed back the way we came, following our GPS track out past where the old fishing boat was. We dropped anchor in 14 metres of water, much more than we usually aimed for, but I knew that Kate and I would both run out of emotion-fueled energy soon.
|Assessing the damage|
The Internet is a wonderful thing. I informed me that Beneteau rudders have two layers of fiberglass over a resin core. If both layers of fiberglass are compromised, water seeping into the core can weaken the structure and the rudder can break. This could leave us without the ability to steer when we really need to. Luckily, the gouge had only penetrated the first layer of fiberglass. I sent pictures back to Craig, Popeye’s owner. He consulted with a boatbuilder that knew Popeye very well and confirmed that all would be right until we could get back to Australia.
|In perspective, not so bad|
What a frightening, sobering experience. I never, ever want to even gently bump into a reef again.
Sailing a yacht isn’t all Margaritas and sunsets.