An account of surviving a killer hurricane in Fiji aboard a 27 foot sloop. The events occurred in 1980, this manuscript was written 5 years later and edited in 1992.
by Vern Clinton
I lay uneasily in the bunk next to Joyce with my hands cupping the back of my head, listening to Chimera’s rigging thrum a deep bass note. The east wind had veered and intensified during the night. Our anchorage, so tranquil last evening when we carefully set the anchor for the night, was now directly under the wind, and Chimera pranced fitfully, heaving against her anchor chain in the wind-driven chop. Usually the morning air felt cool and fresh, but now it was heavy and wet, funneling down the hatch into the forecastle stifling my breathing.
I glanced at my watch. It was seven thirty, well after sunup, but the thick layers of overcast only grudgingly let any light filter through. What light did penetrate the clouds was gray and somber, promising rain and squally weather. For ten days the three of us had been cruising in balmy, spring-like weather. It was March, the tail end of the Hurricane season in Fiji. We were due for some change.
I rolled over to spoon Joyce, who was still asleep, and her skin, usually cool and dry in the morning, was hot and clammy. I put my arms around her. She squirmed fitfully, annoyed by the heat of my touch. I nuzzled her neck to awaken her, but she rolled away from me, making little angry sounds in her sleep as though a mosquito were after her. I let her sleep.
I got up, slipped on a pair of shorts and went aft to the galley to put on the coffee. I did my best not to bang pans around. Dennis was still asleep in the bunk adjacent to the galley.
I put a pan of water on to boil. I checked the coffee canister. A few ounces of fresh ground Kona remained. Its warm aroma set my mouth watering as I charged the Chemex. I climbed on deck to see how the day looked.
It was fine yesterday afternoon when we dropped anchor here on the south side of Vanua Kula, the northernmost island of Astrolabe reef in Fiji. The anchorage had been calm, protected from the northeast wind that had built up during the afternoon. While we slept the wind had clocked around almost ninety degrees and was now attacking us directly from the southeast. We had no protection from it or from the chop marching before it. The rocky beach a scant 20 yards under our stern geysered fountains of froth as the building waves pounded it. I glanced at the wind speed indicator. Twenty knots. We’d have to leave the anchorage soon.
I looked up over the low hill of the little island. Layer after layer of clouds filled the sky. I counted five.
The display was forbidding, ominous, and beautiful.
Damn, I thought, I should have been checking the weather on the radio. If I’d known we were in for this weather we could be in Suva now. We were in for a rough few days. A major storm was building which would bring sheeting rain and gusty wind, as only a tropical storm in Fiji can do. Maybe it would be better just to head back for Suva right away. We might beat the worst of the storm, and Dennis, finishing his two week visit with us, had to leave in two more days anyway.
Astrolabe is a fringing reef thirty miles south of Suva, the capital of Fiji. It’s a coral corral almost four miles wide and eight long enclosing a herd of five small islands. Two are inhabited, three are not. Travel from island to island in the waters of the lagoon is safe and smooth because of the protection of the reef.
Without leaving Astrolabe’s huge lagoon you can spend weeks wandering from island to island. You might drop anchor in front of a village, and pass the day talking with the people, eating with them, laughing with them. The next day you might want solitude and move to a nearby uninhabited island cove. You can choose beachcombing, lazing in protected water near your anchorage, or you can dinghy out to the leeward side of the reef to spend a day soaring with fins and mask over coral grottoes teeming with outrageously flamboyant fish.
Astrolabe reef is the favorite stomping ground of the yachts which stay near Suva for protection during the Fijian hurricane season. It can be reached in one easy day’s sail. In case of a hurricane warning it is only an afternoon sail to get back to the protection of Suva Harbor.
A shout interrupted my thoughts. I looked over my shoulder. Ocean Rover, a 37 foot trimaran was sliding up astern. For the last couple of weeks we had “buddy boated” with Ocean Rover. Eric, her skipper, decided yesterday to anchor on the north side of the island. He anticipated the probable wind shift and expected the north side to offer more comfort during the night. Julie, Eric’s lady, all blond, suntanned loveliness, stood at the trimaran’s wheel. Junius, his father, who was visiting for a week, was standing by her in the cockpit. Eric walked to the lifelines on the trimaran’s wing deck to talk to me.
He called over the ten yards of choppy water: “It was pretty rough last night on the other side, and we didn’t get much sleep. How was it here?”
At that Joyce’s head popped up out of the companionway. “It was pretty damn good,” she grumped, “until some inconsiderate creeps in a big noisy trimaran came stomping into the anchorage.” She ran her hand through her long brown hair and tried to look fierce.
“Joyce,” Eric said, “I thought you’d be up jogging by now. You’re really getting lazy.”
“The way is long and winding, Eric. I’ll get you. Remember that. Where are you headed?”
“We’re going on down to Namara Island. We need some sleep after last night. Are you coming down there?”
Joyce looked at me instead of answering. I said “I think so. We haven’t talked it over, yet. With Dennis having to leave in a couple of days we might just head back. If we don’t join you by about noon that means we left for Suva and we’ll see you in a few days.”
Dennis climbed up into the cockpit past Joyce, scratching his black mop of hair. He waved at Ocean Rover as they chugged on past us out of the anchorage heading south the five miles to Namara. They were motor sailing with just the staysail set.
Dennis said to me “Vern, there are not too many people I’ve ever envied. Eric is one of them, though.”
“What do you mean, Dennis?” I asked.
“Well, he’s 27 years old. He’s sailing the South Pacific in a boat he built with his own hands. He’s got Julie with him who is the most beautiful, together girl I’ve ever met. What more could any man ask for?”
I didn’t try to answer that one.
We started our morning routine, and I forgot my misgivings about the weather. Joyce called Dennis and me below, and we dug into whole wheat pancakes spread with large dollops of butter, and laced with carefully hoarded, real maple syrup from Vermont. We washed it all down with steaming mugs of fresh coffee. While Dennis cleaned up the dishes, I switched on the ham radio for the morning schedule I kept with the dozen or so ham-equipped yachts waiting out the hurricane season in Fiji.
Perry on Aminidab anchored in Suva answered my call.
“VEOETC, this is HP3 XDE. Mornin’, Vern, haven’t heard from you lately. Where are you? Over.”
“Hi, Perry. We’re down at Astrolabe for a couple of days giving Dennis a last shot of the good life before shipping him back to snow country,” I said, “but it’s looking kind of rough here. Maybe we’re in for some really wet weather. What do you think of the sky? Over.”
“Looks pretty fierce, doesn’t it? I guess it’s that cyclone building in Tonga. Over.”
“A cyclone” I said frowning. I glanced over at Joyce who looked up from the letter she was writing, “I haven’t been listening to the weather much lately, Perry, I thought the hurricane season was over. Over.”
“Well, last I heard this one has only just been upgraded from ‘tropical depression’ to ‘cyclone’ with maximum fifty knot winds, so maybe it will just peter out. In any event, they expect it to move southeast into Tonga. Over.”
“Look, Perry, we’re really exposed here. The wind’s been clocking and has increased in strength pretty rapidly this morning. What kind of wind is blowing there? Over.”
“Let’s see. It’s kind of gusty here in the Tradewinds Hotel anchorage, but I’d say it’s averaging about twenty five knots. How about at Astrolabe? Over.”
“About the same, Perry, only it’s steady and the drizzle is turning to rain. I want to check the weather, so I’m going off the air for about five minutes to listen to the WWVH weather synopsis. I don’t usually receive it very well, though. Your equipment is a lot better than mine. Would you monitor it, too, and meet me back on this frequency in fifteen minutes? Over.”
“Sure, Vern. Over.”
“Thanks. This is VEOETC, clear.” I flipped the tuning dial on the receiver toward the weather frequency.
Joyce had heard part of the conversation. “Did I hear him say ‘cyclone’?”
“Yeah, in Tonga. That’s probably why we’ve got this miserable weather. I’m going to try to see just how bad it’s going to be.”
Twenty four hours a day WWVH broadcasts a metronome tone marking the exact second for navigational purposes. Once an hour they give storm warnings for the South Pacific along with a synopsis of weather and a prognosis for the following day. I checked my watch. They were due to broadcast in one minute. I spun the dial of the radio and hoped the weather forecaster’s voice would come in clearly for a change.
The voice was hopelessly garbled. Still I did hear the word “hurricane” clearly enough through the hash of static to raise the hackles on the back of my neck. I couldn’t make out the location of the storm or any of the other information.
I retuned the radio to the ham frequency. “HP3 XDE, this is VEOETC. Perry, you there? Over.”
“VEOETC, HP3 XDE. Roger, Vern, did you hear the report? Over.”
“Couldn’t make out much. Over.”
“Well, I hate to give you the bad news, but that cyclone is now officially a hurricane, “Hurricane ‘Meli’. Over.”
“Jesus, where’s she headed, Perry? Over.” I knew most hurricanes traveled south to higher latitudes before curving west. If ‘Meli’ followed that path, Tonga would take the brunt of her force, and we could expect the wind to swing more to the south giving us an easy run to Suva just about thirty five miles north.
Perry, didn’t answer right away. I assumed he was checking notes to get the heading that WWVH had broadcast. I fidgeted nervously until, finally, he keyed his transmitter.
“The center is one hundred fifty miles west of Vavau, Tonga, traveling at ten knots and accelerating.” He paused for a few seconds and then continued, speaking reluctantly, “I hate to tell you this, Vern, but she’s going to pass through the channel between Suva and Astrolabe some time tonight. Meli’s headed right down your throat. Over.”
Joyce and Dennis stood at my back, listening silently.
Jesus, I thought, it can’t be much more than one hundred fifty miles away.
I triggered the mike. “What strength winds did they report, Perry? Over.”
“Not bad as hurricanes go, Vern, I couldn’t read the wind speed on WWVH, but Radio Suva, the local AM station is reporting sixty knots which technically isn’t even hurricane strength, so it could be worse.” He paused for a heartbeat and asked “What are your plans? Are you heading back? Over.”
“I don’t know, Perry, I’m going to have to figure a couple of things out. We’re cruising with Ocean Rover. Eric doesn’t have a ham radio, and he’s already on his way down to Namara, so I don’t have any way to contact him. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t checked the weather this morning, and, even if he has, that old short wave receiver of his is about shot. I know he doesn’t usually listen to Radio Suva on AM either so I’ll have to go let him know about this, and talk it over with him. Look, can we meet on this frequency at noon, and I’ll let you know our plans? Over.”
“Sure, Vern, I’ll log the reports that I get and fill you in when you come up. See you at noon. Over.”
“Thanks a million, Perry. VEOETC clear.”
“HP3 XDE clear. Good luck, you guys.”
Joe sat at the drafting table in the main work room of NOAA PACIFIC WEATHER PLOTTING in Honolulu . A cold cup of coffee was perched precariously at the top of the desk. A cigarette with a long drooping ash dangled from his lip. He was entering barometric pressure readings on a large chart of the central pacific, readings radioed in by ships and planes. With enough such information Joe was building a picture of the current weather. It was like a kids “connect- the-numbers” puzzle. By connecting the numbers that were the same, the isobars were formed. It was tedious work, but it verified information from the satellites.
Don walked up behind him. “Hey Joe look at what Meli’s doing,” he said and tossed the latest set of satellite photos of the South Pacific onto the drafting table. “Hey, let me borrow that lighter.” Without waiting for an answer he reached for Joe’s lighter beside the coffee cup and lit his cigarette.
Joe picked up the photos and the interpretation sheet and whistled. “Jeesus, Meli’s a real little bitch isn’t she? Looks like she’s accelerating, Going, right for Suva. What are the wind speeds, now?”
Don said “The same. We’ve been broadcasting a prediction for 115 knots for two days now. Gusts will be up to 140 we figure.”
“Did the warnings go out to Radio Fiji?”
“Yeah, they know that they’re in for a rough one this time. It’s going to hit sooner than we thought, but they’ve known for two days what to prepare for.”
“Well, I’m glad I’m here and not there. Hey, you got a spare cigarette? I’m out…”
I shut down the radio and turned and looked at Joyce and Dennis.
“How long before it hits, Vern?” Dennis asked.
“Well, I guess it already has hit. Now we’ll just see the winds get stronger and stronger. The wind has to blow at least 64 knots to be classified as a ‘hurricane,’ so we can expect the wind to increase at least to that level and maybe more, especially if she continues coming directly at us.”
“Any chance it won’t come this way?” he asked.
“Well, it could always veer away, or stop completely for a while, but since it’s already so close, I doubt if that’s likely. Dennis, to top off your visit to Fiji you’re going to go through a real live hurricane.”
“Thanks, Vern, but I can live without that experience. Do you…”
Before Dennis could finish, Joyce broke in nervously. “What are we going to do? Go back to Suva?”
“I really don’t know, yet, babe, but let’s get underway right away. We’ve got to warn Ocean Rover, and, we have to motor directly into this wind to reach her. The sooner we get moving the better.”
The five miles of lagoon between Vanua Kula and Namara lacks maneuvering room. The wind was coming directly from Namara so there was no choice but to motor rather than sail. With only 18 horsepower from our little diesel Chimera could make only two knots, against the wind. Over two hours passed before we pulled into the little protected bay on Namara’s west shore. We dropped the anchor in twenty feet of clear water about ten yards from Ocean Rover.
Namara’s low hill protected us completely from the wind. Only a few stray gusts wrapped around the south end of the island to disturb the tranquility. A steady, warm drizzle of rain fell, but the air was so warm that we ignored the dampness. The three of us climbed into the dinghy and rowed over to Ocean Rover to talk with Eric and his crew. “It’s about time you got here,” Eric said and tied our dinghy to the life lines. We clambered on board and ducked below to get out of the rain. Julie greeted us in the aft cabin with cups of tea and freshly baked cinnamon rolls laid out on the dinette. The six of us sardined into the tiny dinette.
“We’re in for a hurricane, you guys,” Joyce blurted, not one for beating about the bush.
“A hurricane? What do you mean?” Eric asked, his eyebrows rising. “Where is it?”
“From what I heard, about a hundred fifty miles northeast and closing at over ten knots on line for Astrolabe,” I answered before Joyce could speak. Her eyes flashed in annoyance at me for breaking in.
“We had the AM radio on while we were motoring down here, Eric, Radio Fiji says sixty to sixty five knots sustained winds with higher gusts.” The cinnamon rolls were rapidly disappearing so I snagged one before they disappeared entirely. Joyce raised an eyebrow at me in silent comment on my double breakfasting. Junius got up to get the coffee pot.
“I’m curious about something,” he said as he poured the coffee, “What is the difference between a ‘hurricane’ and a ‘typhoon’?” He looked at Eric.
“Well, Dad, about the only difference is in the name. In the northern hemisphere it’s ‘hurricane’… or ‘hisicane’,” he smiled looking significantly at Joyce honoring their good natured feud over women’s lib, “and, in the southern hemisphere, it’s usually ‘typhoon’. The only real difference is that in the northern hemisphere the winds move counterclockwise around a low pressure area, and in the southern hemisphere, clockwise. That’s why we’re getting these southeast winds right now. The low is northeast of us. Hurricanes begin near the equator as lows or ‘tropical depressions,’ then, if they grow, they start moving south and picking up wind speed, then the weather service calls them ‘cyclones’ and starts tracking them. If the winds get to sixty four knots or higher, they change the name to ‘hurricane.'”
“So far, this storm just barely qualifies as a hurricane,” I added, “One of those that touched Fiji a few years ago had winds of better than two hundred knots near the center. Fortunately the worst of it only hit unpopulated areas.”
Julie chuckled and said “Vern, to hear you tell it this is just going to be a little kite flying weather. Next to two hundred knots, sixty five doesn’t sound like much, but when Eric and I were out in ‘only forty knots of wind, sailing here from Tonga, we took all of the sails down, and it was still really hairy. The waves got monstrous. This hurricane coming our way scares me.”
“Me, too, Julie,” Dennis said, “I’d just as soon be dropped off at the nearest bus station. Suddenly I’m tired of cruising.” We smiled and he continued. “Seriously, what’s going to happen now?”
“Yeah,” Julie added, poking Eric in the ribs, “how about you guys figuring out how we get out of this?”
Eric dug out the chart, Kandavu Passage, which covers the area from the big island of Kandavu south of Astrolabe Reef to the main island of Viti Levu 35 miles to the north. We spread it out on the dinette table after clearing the coffee cups and cinnamon roll debris.
I began. “Eric, the way I see it, we’ve got three choices. The closest hurricane hole lies down here on the south side of Kandavu. Have you been down that far?”
“No, but I’ve talked to some people who have. They say it’s pretty fair protection, but, with this wind… We’d have to beat into the wind all the way there, and we’d have to make it through two unfamiliar passes in the reef. The area’s probably got some reefs that aren’t on the chart, too. I’d hate to be in that area at dusk in any weather. That’s a very long haul and a very dangerous one for me. What do you think, Vern?”
“I think Chimera would have damn little chance of getting there today under the best of circumstances. It took us over two hours just to make it here from Vanua Kula this morning, and it’s only five miles. Kandavu is out of the question for us, too. The second possibility is to run for Suva, and go up the river into the mangroves like we did in November when we had that hurricane warning. Suva would be a broad reach, about thirty five miles. You have a real chance to do that, don’t you Eric? It’s twelve o’clock. You could be there by four and still have some time to get up the river to tie off in the mangroves.”
“It’s a possibility. What about Chimera?” “We’re not fast enough, Eric. Even with perfect sailing conditions and no equipment problems, we’d arrive near dark, and we’d never find our way to the river mouth in those conditions. Remember that channel through the shoals by the river isn’t marked, and it would be disastrous to get stuck at the last minute on the mud banks. The worst of it is if we got caught outside the harbor entrance with bad visibility, or a squall, it would be all over. We couldn’t even slow down, and it’s all reefs there. We’d be history.” I paused for a moment letting that sink in, and continued. “Whatever happens I don’t want to chance Chimera getting caught out in a hurricane. We’ve ridden out fifty knot gales right in the anchorage at the Royal Suva Yacht Club before, and Radio Fiji is only reporting sixty five knots maximum sustained winds. That’s a lot, but I think we’ll take our chances right here, Suva’s a real alternative for you, though. Ocean Rover’s speed might really pay off this time.”
“I don’t know, Vern, we could get caught in a squall, too, and I don’t like the idea of trying to get situated that late, especially since everyone else will already have hardened their silos. There’ll be anchor lines and mooring lines all over the place. Probably every commercial boat in the area is crowded in there. Most of all, I don’t like the idea of leaving you guys here alone. Ocean Rover’s ridden out some good blows at anchor.” He looked at Julie, and Junius, and then looked back at me “We’re staying with you.” He turned to Junius. “How do you feel, Dad?”
“Son, you’re the sailor. I’m a teacher. I trust your judgment. What can I do to help?”
“There’ll be plenty to do soon,” Eric replied.
Strangely we felt in high spirits. Dennis alone seemed withdrawn. Earlier in the season a hurricane roared through Fiji. We all had prepared for the worst. The storm had veered away from populated areas and missed us. It was hard to imagine any serious danger in being anchored. Maybe we could lose Chimera on the rocks, but Joyce and I faced that danger in almost every anchorage we entered.
The excitement of danger was intoxicating, and we joked about the situation while Julie fixed sandwiches and tea.
Since we decided not to leave our present anchorage the sense of urgency was gone and we were buoyed by the satisfaction of having made a decision. It was as though making a decision on what to do about our problem, solved the problem.
I felt stimulated, almost eager come to grips with the worst of the hurricane. Dennis seemed distant, deep in thought. Perhaps he had a better grasp than any of us of just what sort of test we were really facing.
Joyce and I met Dennis eight years ago at our home at Lake Tahoe, California. Cautious by nature, Dennis thinks things through carefully before making any decision. Eight weeks ago we picked him up at the Nadi Airport near Suva. He travels light, and was an experienced traveler. He had hitchhiked all over the world, but was cruising now for the first time. Serious and brooding by nature, he is handsome with dark hair and eyes, fair skin, and a wrestler’s body. Dennis is methodical in every aspect of his life from the food he eats to the exercise routine that he follows every day. I wondered how the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of Meli’s threat felt to him.
The three of us returned to Chimera. Joyce put Dennis to work removing sail bags, water jugs and other gear from the deck to stow below in the forecastle. Then she came below with me to secure loose equipment for rough weather. I switched on the ham radio. It was time for my noon schedule with Aminidab.
“HP3 XDE, HP3 XDE, this is VEOETC, you there, Perry? Over.”
“HP3 XDE, HP 3 XDE, this is VEOETC, come in, Perry, Over. ”
I called for five minutes before giving up.
“What’s the matter, Vern, can’t you get Perry?” Joyce asked.
“No, I guess everyone in Suva’s too busy now for a chat. Or it could be we’re simply not getting out. These conditions are funny. Well, I’d better get busy if we’re going to stay hooked on the bottom in sixty-five knots of wind.” I left the radio on all afternoon in case Perry called in late. He never did.
Usually we anchor in twenty feet of water or less in a protected anchorage, but after the center of the storm passed our position the wind would shift. Without the protection of the island huge waves would assault the anchorage. Even with the protection of Astrolabe reef a mile away, the waves might easily be over ten feet high. In only twenty feet of water they would be crashing breakers. We moved the boat out to forty feet of water about 150 yards from the beach and dropped the main anchor. I wanted to be even farther out where there would be less chance of a breaking wave tearing Chimera loose from her anchors, but we had limited anchor chain, not enough for deeper water.
From its stowage in the bilge, I got out the second anchor, all of the spare chain and a one hundred foot length of one inch nylon line. With everything on deck I broke out the scuba gear. Joyce helped me put it on.
“Vern, I’m getting a little scared. It’s just beginning to sink in that this could be really serious.”
“I think we’ll be able to ride it out okay. Sixty-five knot winds are not that bad. The important thing now is to think of everything we can do before the worst hits. How’s Dennis taking it?”
“It’s hard to tell, you know how quiet he is. I think he’s pretty frightened. I think I’m getting that way, too.”
“Well, keep him working, and talk to him. Remember we’ve got a certain degree of confidence in the boat from our experiences during the last few months. To Dennis this is all new. As soon as you can, check the bilge pumps and the portable pumps, and make sure the buckets are where we can get to them. Oh, and break out the fins and masks for you and Dennis, and test the inflatable life jackets. And stop worrying. Think of the tapes you can send to Lynn back home when this is over. When I’m done setting these anchors we’re going to be well attached to the bottom. We’re not going to drag anchor tonight if I can help it.”
Joyce helped me lower the spare anchor on its chain along with an additional 100 foot length of nylon rope. I strapped on the SCUBA tank, clamped my teeth around the regulator, and pushed off the deck into the water. Below the surface I cleared my mask of water and the saliva I’d rubbed it with to keep it from fogging. As the cloud of bubbles from my entry cleared, I doubled over and kicked for the bottom. I glided down to the pile of chain and the spare anchor. The chain of the main anchor was tending off in the direction of shallow water nearer the beach.
I could see over 100 feet the water was so clear. I looked around the area to see how well it would serve as anchorage. I saw mostly sand with small coral heads dotted here and there, but there were several very large coral, heads within my range of vision. These were what I was most interested in. I kicked over to the anchor and, taking off my fins and stringing them on one arm, picked up the anchor and an armful of chain. I backed off from Chimera toward the largest coral head. Weightless and held to the bottom only by the thirty or forty pound weight of my burden, I pogosticked along the bottom like an astronaut skipping along backwards on the moon. When the chain was stretched out, I put it down, donned the fins and swam over to the main anchor. It was okay, but I would have to move it later. I returned to the coral head I had chosen for the second anchor and looped the anchor’s chain around it, then I shackled the loop together so that the chain could not come off unless the entire coral head disintegrated. If that happened the anchor would still be there and might set in the sand or catch on another coral outcropping.
As I worked, clouds of damsel fish surrounded me. A dozen yellow and black sergeant-majors darted in front of my mask trying to decide if I were some sort of fish they could adopt and follow around. I finished placing the anchor and double checked the chain and the shackles. A glance at my pressure gauge showed my air tank half empty; I didn’t have another. I swam back to Chimera, passed my fins up to Joyce and climbed aboard.
“How you doin’, turkey?” Joyce kissed my salty face.
“Pretty good. One anchor’s set solid. I’m going to take a few minutes break and finish up. How’s Dennis doing?”
“He seems okay… Awfully quiet. He’s just lying in the bunk looking at nothing.”
“Have you heard anyone talking on the ham? Or gotten any news on Radio Fiji?” I asked.
“The ham’s nothing but static, but Radio Fiji is now predicting seventy to eighty knots of wind.” She said watching for my reaction. I did my best not to show my anxiety.
I looked over toward Namara island. It’s only about one hundred feet high and was covered with coconut palms, papayas, and mangos. Looking up along the crest of a hill I could see the trees and bushes whipping in the wind. About forty knots I guessed. It was two thirty.
“You know, Joyce, the worst of our problem will be after the center of the hurricane gets past us, and the wind shifts around. We’re pretty well protected while the wind is like this. We’ll get a lot of the wind, but not too much of the waves, which are going to be humongous on the windward side of the island. After Meli passes us, the winds are going to shift to this side of the island. Then we’re not going to have any protection at all, with the exception of Astrolabe reef. The wind will set us right toward the rocks. I’m trying to orient the anchors so when the wind shifts we won’t ‘snag a coral head and break the chain, but I don’t know…”
By three o’clock gusts of wind were blasting around the sides of the island. Chimera and Ocean Rover darted first one way then another in the forty knot gusts. I looked over at Ocean Rover about thirty yards south. Eric was still underwater working with his anchors. Julie and Junius were just wrestling the main sail down the forward hatch. Both Ocean Rover and Chimera looked like plucked chickens with all their deck gear below. Julie caught my eye, and we waved to each other. It was good to have friends nearby, and I was glad they had decided to stay.
Before going back into the water, I let out more chain-on the main anchor until it was completely slack, letting Chimera ride to the second anchor. Then I slacked another fifty feet of chain to give myself plenty to work with.
The main anchor rode was all chain instead of a mixture of chain and nylon rope. Re-positioning a hundred feet of chain means disentangling it from coral along the way, dragging it through the sand, being careful that the movement of the boat doesn’t catch you while you’re tangled up in it. A sudden tautening of the chain can break bones or crush fingers. I dragged the pile of slack several feet at a time untangling the chain from the coral along the way. Finally at the main anchor, I chose another huge coral head and ran a loop of chain around it in the same manner as the first one. Fish were feeding all around me where the anchor chain had demolished the coral; some of them hovered eagerly near me while I worked to see what new morsels I would turn up for them as I dragged the chain.
The end of the job coincided with the end of my air supply. I took a last look around, mentally crossed my fingers and swam back to the boat. It was about four o’clock. When I reached the surface the chop had built up, and Chimera was surging against her anchor like a frightened horse trying to part its tether. Once aboard I stowed the scuba gear in the lazarette, and adjusted the anchors so Chimera was riding to both of them equally. Then I went below for a cup of coffee out of the rain. I was feeling the strain, and the aroma of the coffee was wonderfully comforting.
“Vern,” Joyce said as she poured me a cup, “Radio Suva’s predicting sustained ninety knot winds. Ninety knots. Everything is stowed, what next?” Joyce made no comment on the new escalation of the predicted wind speed. I was stunned. What had started as a 65 knot prediction was now 90 knots. The power of the wind increases with the square of the wind speed. We were now facing winds twice as strong as expected earlier, and for all I knew the prediction would continue to increase. Jesus, six times the power of a full gale. Well, we were committed. Like the parachutist who has already left the airplane there was no going back, now.
I said “The dinghy has to be stowed. I think we’ll take it in to the beach, into the protection of the trees so we won’t have to deflate it and have it taking up a lot of space down below.”
Dennis was lying in the bunk in the forecastle. I went forward and said “Grab your fins, Dennis, we’ve got to take the dinghy in to the beach. On the way back out we can stop by Ocean Rover and see how they are doing.”
As we got close to shore, we were protected from the wind and had no difficulty negotiating the shallow reef just off the sandy beach. We dragged the boat far up behind the beach, and I lashed it securely to a palm tree.
Namara Island is shaped like a dog bone oriented north and south with a hill at either end. In the center between the two hills is a comparatively low ridge, perhaps fifty feet above sea level, which was marked by an enormous mango tree in its center. A narrow trail led through the dense vegetation up the hill and over the small pass by the tree. Most mornings when we were anchored at Namara, we would follow the path and cross the island to the other side to the western beach, which is long and wide, having benefited from being on the windward side of the island where more sand is washed up onto shore.
“I think the dinghy will be okay here even if the water rises quite a bit. Let’s see what things are looking like on the other side, okay?”
Overhead the clouds were a solid brooding mass of gray. The wind tore up over Namara’s spine whipping the branches of trees as though angry at having anything impede its flow, and its sound was loud, even down in our protected spot. One or two birds were still aloft although most had already found whatever shelter they could. I wondered briefly just what birds do in these conditions? What sort of shelter do they find? Those above us were having a difficult time in the turbulence behind the island.
We set off up the path ducking the encircling branches and stepping over ferns and fallen limbs. Rain was dripping off of every leaf and branch. The air was sticky and heavy. The light was dim. A pungent odor of compost rose from the carpet of dead leaves beneath out feet.
In five minutes we stood by the mango tree just below the spine of the ridge. Several of the branches of the huge tree had broken, and one of them had fallen across our path. We climbed over it and topped the pass. The windward channel stretching two miles east to Astrolabe Reef lay white capped below us. The water was half deep, dark blue-gray, and half the foamy white of breaking waves. Long wind streaks radiated toward us from the southeast, and the beach below was almost completely covered with water and spume torn from the waves by the building storm. The wind assaulting our hair and eyes carried the clean scent of air that has blown for thousands of miles over the sea without touching the pollution of civilization. The moisture collecting in our hair and on our faces ran down to touch our lips, and I licked a few drops and tasted the tang of salt water mixed with the rain.
“That is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen,” Dennis said looking out over the channel. “How can something so beautiful be so threatening?”
We climbed a large rock outcropping to look in the opposite direction over the bushes and trees back down into our anchorage. Chimera and Ocean Rover looked serene enough, although they were in the grip of much of the wind’s fury now.
I looked again from the comparative calm of the anchorage to the tempest on the windward side of the island and tried to imagine what it would be like when the wind shift that would follow the passage of the storm turned the tables on us and put Chimera and Ocean Rover under the full power of an eighty or ninety knot wind. Jesus, I thought, Jesus Christ Almighty.
“Let’s go on back,” I said to Dennis.
When we reached the beach white caps were turning the water white all around the bay. Both boats tacked on their anchor lines restlessly darting to and fro under the influence of gusts exceeding forty knots. Damn, maybe I should have spread the anchors more. It was too late to do much about it now, and without SCUBA it was impossible to change anything. For better or worse we’d have to live with it as it was.
Quickly putting on fins, mask and snorkel, Dennis and I flip-flopped into the water. Out a few yards we hand walked over the shallow reef that guards the beach, being very careful where we placed our bare hands on the sharp coral, and swam for Ocean Rover as soon as the water deepened. The water had clouded to a gray-green murk. Rainwater running off the island carried sand and debris, and currents brought more cloudy water flowing from the other side of the island.
Nobody was on deck when we reached Ocean Rover. Dennis knocked on the hull.
“Hey, you Yachties,” he yelled, “you’ve got company.”
Eric’s blond head appeared over the life lines. He helped us on board and gave us towels. We went below for a cup of coffee and some talk. Piled on the galley work counter was a plate full of sandwiches, some wrapped, and a huge thermos of tea. Julie had gotten provisions together for a long night.
“Well, are you guys ready for the show?” Eric asked. “I think we’ve done about all we can.”
“That’s why we came over. Joyce, Dennis, and I have decided to check into the Namara Hilton so we can have a couple of cocktails while we watch it all happen. We’ll ask the bell hop to keep an eye on the boats.”
Again I was struck by our lightheartedness in the face of such a crisis. Perhaps we were all whistling in the dark, but there was an air of exhilaration in the little cabin. I think we knew we might find our boats damaged before morning, but with all of the uncharted obstacles in Fijian waters, that was always a possibility.
Eric and I reviewed each other’s anchoring arrangements, and Dennis and Junius got to talking about what a complete show was being laid on for their benefit as visitors. I don’t think they knew quite what to do with their adrenaline, but I was glad to see Dennis opening up a little after the way he had brooded most of the afternoon. We all wished each other luck, and Dennis and I went up on the rainy, windy deck to put on our fins and masks.
“It’s getting pretty dark, Eric. We’ll see you in the morning.”
“Right. Tell Joyce not to forget to come get us for a jog in the morning.” Eric smiled.
Dennis answered, “Careful what you say, you might be running in hip boots at dawn.”
We had a last chuckle before we crammed snorkels in our mouths and jumped back in the water to swim the thirty yards to Chimera.
We climbed aboard the plunging boat, pulled in the boarding ladder and went below. Joyce was talking on the tape recorder telling her friend Lynn about the experience so far. She was making it sound like a real lark.
We had thick, hot lentil soup as the sodden darkness enveloped us. After cleaning and tidying up.-. Joyce settled down again with the tape recorder. Dennis tried to read in his bunk. I put on a wet suit shirt and climbed into the cockpit.
My plan was to use the engine to relieve some of the strain on the anchor lines and to actually drive Chimera onto the beach if the anchor lines should part. From the cockpit I could see Ocean Rover’s light, but no details. The rain was too heavy. It was six o’clock.
By seven o’clock we were out of control.
Chimera jerked to a halt at the end of her anchor chain, heeled over, dipped her rail in the water, and threw me to my knees. The screaming wind held the sloop flat on her side.
Below, Joyce and Dennis braced themselves on the hull and looked up at me in the cockpit. They expected to see sheets of water cascading past me to flood Chimera and send her to the bottom. I crouched where I had been thrown, pain exploded through my knee where it had struck the deck. I willed the little sloop to recover, to swing into the wind again so that her five thousand pound keel could bring her upright. Through the deck I could feel the anchor chain grind in the chock as the little sloop struggled to tear her anchors loose from the coral heads forty feet below her.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Chimera pivoted around her bow and dragged her keel sideways through the water. The keel that helped her sail a steady course, and which kept her from rolling in a seaway was now helping the wind destroy her.
As her bow fell off in one direction or the other, the keel resisted letting the stern swing to keep the boat lined up with the wind. Then the wind started her moving at an angle to the anchor line, and she rapidly picked up speed. The faster she went the less the keel let her head up into the wind, and at the end of each tack the anchor lines yanked her to a stop and tripped her, while the wind held her down.
Finally she struggled into the wind. I took a deep breath as the keel levered her upright, realizing that I had been holding my breath for a long time.
At sunset” darkness enveloped us with a malignant vengeance. The wind, strong before, now became a ripping, screaming obscenity of power. The darkness, combined with the overpowering, irresistible wind, cut us off from the outside world as completely as if we were trapped in a submarine on the bottom of the ocean.
We were even denied speech. We had to shout directly into each other’s ear to communicate. We were saturated with sound.
In our bubble of darkness and din the only light was a feeble glowing of the cabin light, diffused by a foggy mist of water. Lightning flickered, but its thunder was swallowed in the tumult.
While Chimera headed directly into the wind I cupped my hands around the compass and put my face close to its luminous card to get our heading. Still southeast. The wind had not changed direction all afternoon. The course of the center of the hurricane still lay directly toward us. If it had veered to one side or the other, the angle of the wind would show it. If it were moving to the north of us, the wind would change counterclockwise, if to the south of us, clockwise.
We couldn’t measure the wind speed. The anemometer disappeared shortly after registering sixty knots. That was an hour and a half ago. According to the last report we were able to receive, the center of the storm was still hours away. I wondered to myself with a sinking in my stomach, can we really stand six or seven hours more of this punishment? I didn’t consider then that Meli’s center passing would only mark the halfway point of our torment. Then we would face again all that we had survived already, only in descending levels of power as the storm center moved on.
And what if it didn’t move on? In low latitudes hurricanes sometimes paused in one location for hours, or even days.
The wind grasped Chimera’s bow anew to launch her on another wild tack. I advanced the throttle on the little Volvo auxiliary and jammed the tiller over as hard as I could. To judge the RPM of the engine I put my ear to the deck. It was the only way I could hear the engine over the locomotive roar around me. Motoring didn’t seem to do much good; maybe it even made things worse. It did give me the feeling that I was doing something worthwhile.
Chimera’s bow kept falling off the wind, and as she picked up speed on her new tack, I throttled back the engine to avoid adding to her speed. Lightning flickered continuously, but its illumination was too faint for me to see beyond the immediate vicinity of the cockpit. I wanted to see the deck forward to judge how the anchor lines held, and to see how badly the nylon anchor line wore at the chock. To do that was impossible. I had a spotlight, but I couldn’t safely rise above the level of the cabin top to see forward.
The chain of the main anchor led aboard through the port chock and then wrapped around the sampson post, a heavily reinforced timber projecting through the deck near the bow. The sampson post is designed to take any reasonable strain, but I had then taken several wraps of the chain around the winch as a backup. Finally, the chain led around the base of the mast. If any of that tore out, the water pouring down through the deck would be our notice that something was awry. A much more likely disaster would be the chain breaking.
If it did break we would probably not know it unless the second anchor line broke also. The nylon line of the second anchor came aboard via the starboard chock and ran back along the deck to the big genoa winch, mounted with five, five-sixteenth inch stainless steel bolts onto the right side of the cockpit. A large cleat bolted to the coaming of the cockpit secured the tail of the line.
I reached out and felt the nylon line running to the winch. It was bar taut, but secure. One anchor, at least, was holding. Still, I worried about the possibility of chafe where the line came through the chock.
I reviewed in my mind where the anchors lay. There was little chance of the chains or anchors coming loose as long as the wind held steady from the southeast, but the lines becoming fouled when the wind shifted as the storm passed was a serious possibility. Coral would slice the nylon in an instant if the line drooped to the bottom. The chain, if caught up short by a coral head would quickly break by the heaving of the boat.
A grinding crunch shuddered through the deck. Chimera again reached the end of her pendulum swing and heeled sharply. The cap rail submerged. Water slopped over the coaming into the cockpit. For the hundredth time that night I silently thanked the English shipwrights who had built this little Golden Hind sloop strong enough to take the fury of North Sea gales, and I repented ever cursing her for her stolid pace on passages. She always got us into port, albeit last. If the anchors held and didn’t turn her loose to founder on the reef, we had a chance.
Chimera struggled up to face into the wind. I reached for the throttle again, but the warning light on the instrument panel glowed red. The engine temperature was dangerously high. The cooling water intake must have sucked in air while we were heeled over. The cooling water pump was airlocked and useless. With no way to bleed the pump, running the engine would destroy it in minutes, and could cause a fire. I cut the engine.
Now I had nothing to do. We were completely at the mercy of circumstance. I peered through the blackness trying to catch sight of a light from Ocean Rover, but could see nothing. For all I knew she had dragged out of the anchorage without my seeing her. Eric, Julie, and Junius were probably having it even rougher than we were. Ocean Rover had much more windage than we and would be blown about even more violently than Chimera.
I didn’t want to go below even though there was nothing I could do on deck. I thought back to a discussion I had with Dennis earlier in the day. Dennis had said “Look, maybe we should secure everything here on Chimera and go on in to the island. There are no people there, but we might find some shelter back in the trees, or maybe find a cave or something. What do you think?”
“Well, Radio Fiji reports maximum winds of only sixty to sixty five knots, which we should be able to handle okay,” I had replied,” and a night in the rain and wind on the island would be pretty uncomfortable. At least out here we’ve got a coffee pot, and we can always swim to shore if it gets too wild.”
I could not measure the wind speed now, but I knew it exceeded any prediction we had heard, and no one could survive in the water in these conditions. With this wind the current probably exceeded two knots, and I doubted there was enough air at the surface to breathe anyway. Water was being torn from the ocean in sheets, at the surface it would be like trying to breathe in three feet of foam.
Joyce crawled out into the cockpit. Somehow she had managed to pour me a cup of coffee from the thermos. I took it gratefully and sipped. There was a shot of rum in it that warmed me to my toes. She put her lips to my ear and shouted at the top of her voice.
“Are you OK?”
“Yes,” I yelled in her ear, “how is it below?”
“Rough. Dennis is pretty sick, I am too. What’s happening?”
“The wind is backing some. The center can’t be too-far.”
“Why did you shut off the engine?” she shouted.
“It was ready to burn out. I was afraid of fire, and I thought by saving it we might be able to run it in an emergency later, at least for a few minutes.”
“Have you seen how Ocean Rover’s doing?” she asked.
“I haven’t seen any lights from Ocean Rover at all.”
“We felt a terrible crunch a minute ago. Do you think the anchors are holding?”
Before I could answer her question we hit the end of our swing again and were thrown to one side. An explosion like a rifle shot at close range sounded over the roar of the wind. Joyce looked at me. Her eyes widened in alarm.
Oh, shit. I thought there goes one anchor line. The main anchor was secured on the foredeck. I had no way to check it. I could check the nylon line leading aft from the second anchor.
I put my hand out in the dark, reaching just forward of the winch and laid my hand on the rope. It was still taut, as hard as steel wire. It was taking most of the strain as Chimera struggled with the relentless pressure of the wind. I slid my hand aft toward the winch, and encountered… Nothing! Where’s the winch? I felt the rope all the way back to the cleat. The winch was gone. That had been the explosion. Five, five-sixteenth inch bolts had sheared under the strain. The winch had snapped off and been flipped over the side. The cleat, not designed to take a tenth of the load it was under, was holding, but for how long? Was this our only anchor now? Had the main anchor chain already parted so that this cleat and the afterdeck cleat were all that held us?
I put my lips close to Joyce’s ear and shouted “I think both anchors are still holding, but get everything together below just in case. Get my fins and life jacket for me, too. I’ll be down in a minute. Thanks for the coffee.” Wordlessly she went below.
The lightning was now a continuous, a flickering strobe light in a blacked out disco. A flash of reflected lightning to starboard caught my eye. I investigated with a flashlight. Alongside the hull was a length of aluminum mast. It was entangled in its rigging, held alongside the hull. Our mast had buckled and broken. That must have been the noise Joyce heard earlier.
With the mast down there was less pressure aloft to heel the boat over, which was good, but the mast was pounding the hull. It might smash through at any moment. Could I cut it loose? Briefly I considered trying to take bolt cutters forward to cut the rigging away. No, that would be suicide. I’d just have to hope that the plywood and fiberglass of the hull would take the punishment for the next few hours. God, how many hours to go?
When Chimera faced the wind dead on I checked the compass. Our heading was a little more easterly. The eye must be getting close, but it was still too early for that according to Radio Suva’s afternoon reports. The eye would probably pass north of us, possibly right through Suva. God, what a mess that would make of the crowded anchorage there.
Thinking of Suva I wished we were there with Chimera safely tucked away up the river tied to the mangrove trees. Still, the mangroves themselves might be tearing away this very minute.
When the eye passed the wind shift would continue through east and change to north or northwest. We would then face the wind’s fury unprotected.
Astrolabe reef a mile to the east would protect us from storm waves, but not from the wind. If we broke loose after the wind shift, the wind would drive us onto the island; if it happened now, it would drive us offshore to founder on Astrolabe reef.
I went below to explain our situation to Joyce and Dennis.
Below, in the dim light, the clammy dampness, the lurching, jerking motion of the boat, and the roaring of the storm made the moment unreal, even dreamlike. Water droplets in the air formed a dense fog. As I sat down on the companionway ladder, I felt the first nausea of seasickness. A glance at my watch. It showed a little after nine.
Joyce and Dennis looked at me. I was facing them with my back to the companionway hatch leading to the cockpit.
“The engine is shot,” I yelled, “The mast is down and may break through the hull at the starboard quarter. Be ready to handle a leak there. The anchors seem to be holding so far. There is no way to swim for it. We stay with the boat even if it does break loose from the anchors. We don’t abandon ship unless she sinks under us.”
“If we break loose now, we’ll end up on the outer reef. Maybe that would just strand us high and dry, but we could blow right over the reef and sink. If we have to abandon Chimera try to stay together. Our best chance in the water is to swim backwards so that an air pocket forms around our faces. Conserve your energy in the water. We can’t swim against this, and we could be in the water a long time. Don’t fight it. Save your strength until after the worst of the storm passes. With wet suit shirts and life jackets we can survive for a long time in the water.
“There’ll be a wind shift after the eye passes sometime later tonight. That would drive us back toward Astrolabe, so I don’t think we’d end up very far to sea. Mainly, don’t panic, and conserve your strength..
We’ll keep fins and mask in our hands from now on. All we can really do is just sit.” Meli was not yet half over. It was nine fifteen. Maybe six hours of this to go before we could expect some easing.
Just sitting and waiting was the hardest. All day we had been occupied with preparations for the hurricane: anchoring, securing deck gear, taking the dinghy ashore. Now, with nothing to do, we were all seasick, and worst of all, had time to dwell on the outcome of the next few hours.
I hoped Chimera’s anchors could hold until the wind shift, so that at the worst we would drive up on the rocks. We could make our way onto the island if that happened. At least we’d have a good chance of it. Chimera would be gone, but we would be safe.
What was happening on Ocean Rover? I remembered what Eric had said earlier in the day when we wee hiding our nervousness with kidding. “Vern, in a high wind I just touch a button, and Ocean Rover’s wind vane converts into an airplane-type horizontal stabilizer. The steering wheel converts to a joy stick, and I just fly her to some safe landing.” I hoped he wasn’t having to make good on that boast now.
Joyce was packing passports and traveler’s checks in a waterproof bag, and getting sandals out of the clothes locker when she stopped suddenly and shouted: “Vern, there’s water pouring into the clothes locker!”
Her face was stricken.
“Joyce, get the clothes and junk out of the locker. Toss it all into the fore peak. Dennis, lift up the deck boards and check the bilge for water.” I grabbed a flashlight and stumbled forward. Joyce pulled the last of the clothes from the locker and I shone the light inside. A long fracture in the hull ran from deck level down to about a foot above the water line. The chain plate, the fitting that secures the shroud to the hull for the mast support, had partially pulled loose. It probably happened when the mast broke.
I examined the damage. Not too serious, I thought, as long as the mast is already down. Still, it’s going to let a lot of water in each time we heel over.
Dennis called, “Vern, there’s about a foot of water in the bilge.”
Without a word Joyce pulled the bilge pump handle out of its cubbyhole under the bunk and handed it to Dennis, showing him where to insert it in the pump body. He began to pump, bracing himself for the next knock down.
Suddenly he stopped pumping, looked around, and said “Listen, you guys, did you hear that? I heard a shout.” We all stopped to listen and suddenly realized it was quiet. The noise of the storm was gone.
For a few moments we remained frozen in place without understanding what had happened. It was as though God had forgotten to start the second reel of our movie on time, and abruptly the tumultuous fury of the storm had paused for an intermission.
Dennis was the first to speak. He said with a tone of awe in his voice, “It’s the calm, we’re in the calm of the middle of the hurricane.” I must have heard somebody shout on Ocean Rover.” He climbed out into the cockpit. I followed him into the flickering lightning lighted darkness and also heard a shout. I couldn’t hear the words, but it was surely from Ocean Rover. I looked up and the stars shone bright and clear. The sea still heaved around us, though, and chivvied by the chop, Chimera wallowed.
“Let’s…get…out…of…here.” Dennis said emphasizing each word.
“Yes,” I agreed, “Joyce, c’mon,” I called, “we’re swimming for it. Hurry, babe.” I looked around but couldn’t make out any lights from the Ocean Rover. The almost continuous flashing of the lightning revealed the silhouette of the island. The low pass in the center of the island marked the little rockbound beach. We were not far from our original anchorage. Even if it were impossible to find the beach it was better to attempt to land on the rocks than stay with Chimera. I didn’t know how long the eye of the hurricane would last.
“Here.” Joyce handed me a pair of Levis. “If we’re going in over the reef you’ll need these.”
Within three minutes we added fins, mask, and snorkel to the gear we already wore. I clutched the waterproof flashlight, and Joyce carried the waterproof camera bag with the hastily gathered passports, traveler’s checks, and journal. Four hundred dollars cash lay forgotten in the bookcase.
I jumped in the water then grabbed the gunwale of the boat as the residual current from the wind tried to sweep me away. It would be a tough swim, even with fins, and especially with so much clothing, life jackets, and equipment.
“Hurry!” I was anxious to get moving. God might put that second reel on at any moment.
Dennis and Joyce were in the water with me in seconds. The water was rough. It was very, very, dark. Joyce held on to my life jacket strap so we would not separate.
My clothing, life jacket and the big flashlight dragged in the water, still I resisted the desire to swim harder. After a day of work and tension, overexertion might cause cramps. My snail’s pace drove Dennis nuts he kept swimming on ahead and then returning to urge us on. A shout from Ocean Rover reached us when we were about half way to the beach. I shouted back into the blackness that we were heading to the beach, but we did not slow our efforts in an attempt to communicate. We all had one goal. Get to land and safety. We tumbled over the little reef a few feet from the beach. If the wind had been onshore building up the surf, instead of offshore, we’d have been smashed into the coral, and wouldn’t have had a chance. We scrambled up away from the surf in the eerie darkness. I shone the light around us. Fallen coconut trees, coconuts, and fronds littered the ground. The trail leading to the other side of the island through the jungle was gone.
Dennis said “We’ve got to get off this beach and find some shelter. That wind will be strong enough to lift us right off this island.”
He was right. We should be far from the beach when the wind returned. If we stayed here the possibility of getting coldcocked with a five pound green coconut driven by hurricane winds was real.
“Vern, where’s that trail? Can you tell?” Joyce asked.
“I don’t think I could find it in the dark, Babe, but if we can get to the other side of the island maybe we will be better protected from the new wind. It should blow from almost the opposite direction. Let’s go.” We started off.
“Hey, who’s there?!” It was a shout from the water. Eric ran dripping up to us. With no preliminaries he asked, “Have you seen Julie or my Dad?” Before we could react he continued, “Ocean Rover capsized, Julie was swept away, my Dad was trapped inside. Is she here?”
“We just got here,” Joyce said “Maybe she’s taken shelter already. Come on with us we’ve got to get to shelter quick. ”
“I’ve got to find her, Joyce, I’ve got to,” Eric said. I thought she might have made it to Chimera and when the eye came I was just about to swim over there when I heard you shout. I thought you said she was with you. Then I saw your light. I thought it was some natives on the beach who could help. Maybe she did make it to Chimera. I’ve got to go get her . ”
“Eric, no,” I said. “She wasn’t on Chimera, and if she was in the water nearby when the eye came she’d have heard us or seen the light, too. Don’t go back in the water.”
Suddenly, sand, palm fronds, and water took flight about us. The wind had returned with a vengeance. Speech was no longer possible or necessary, and there was no longer any question of Eric’s going for a swim.
We rushed inland. I led with the light. The others followed as best they could. For long minutes we stumbled through the underbrush climbing through bushes denuded by the wind, clambering over fallen trees, stumbling, falling, scrambling. Finally we topped the spine of the island marked by a rocky saddle outcropping. We tried to cross it, thinking the other side might offer more protection, but the wind had shifted less than one hundred eighty degrees. Our side of the island held the worst of the wind at bay. We huddled under an outcropping, which formed a kind of shallow cave with a floor that sloped sharply downward toward the anchorage.
With only the light of the flashlight, we worked into the little cave. There were denuded branches all around, and we had to squirm, push, and rearrange branches, twigs, and rocks to make room for ourselves. I hooked my butt over a two inch branch lying horizontally in the mud to keep from sliding down the hill. On my left Dennis dug his heels into the soft soil. On my right Joyce sat on the same branch as I, and Eric found a spot next to her. We sat facing out in the direction of the bay, our backs pressed uncomfortably against the hard, knobby outcropping of rock.
Water dripped down on our heads from the lip of the ridge, stinging our eyes with its burden of sea salt. Wind roared overhead and we had to shout to be understood. Lightning strobed through the tangle of branches around us. Surrealistic silhouettes etched our vision.
Until this moment the entire adventure seemed unreal to me. I felt detached, almost like a spectator at a play, or perhaps like one of the actors. I said my lines, performed the necessary action, but felt detached, uninvolved emotionally. I felt no fear, no horror or dismay.
Now we were safe from the storm’s fury. Emotion washed over me. I don’t have a name for it. Perhaps it was a mélange of all of the strong emotions of which we are capable. It welled out of my inner being and overflowed onto the others. Wordlessly, we all put our arms about each other and embraced. No words were said, yet the action itself was a fervent prayer of thanksgiving to the Universe.
We settled down to wait out the night and to think. It was ten p.m.
The only flaw in our joy was not knowing if Julie and Junius had reached safety. Joyce took my hand, and I squeezed it. I could feel its warmth all the way up my arm to my heart, and my eyes stung anew, this time with tears. I wanted to stand up and shout into the storm, “I’m alive; Joyce is alive!” The cramped discomfort of our shelter was nothing, the cold rain soaking and chilling us was nothing, that we might have lost all of our possessions was nothing. We were alive and together.
The wave of exultation passed, and my thoughts turned to Eric, wedged into the tangle of branches a few feet away. What must he be going through? For him, the hours ahead held not only the screaming wind and cold rain, but also the helpless dread that maybe Julie or his Dad had drowned.
The minutes and hours passed. The adrenaline which had been pumping through my veins for hours gradually faded. Cramps, fatigue, and cold permeated my body, and my head jerked as I would fall asleep, and then start awake. Drugged by fatigue my mind wove thought and hallucination into a fabric of improbable waking dreams. To combat drowsiness and the chill I had to stand holding a branch for balance and exercise with knee bends until the warmth of exertion flowed from my legs through my body. I tried to stretch out, but that was impossible. Finally, Joyce succumbed to her own fatigue, and slept leaning against my shoulder. My muscles cramped with the strain of her weight, but feeling a wave of tenderness for her I fought to remain still so she could have a few minutes of rest. I consoled myself with the thought of morning when I would swim out to Chimera, make a pot of coffee, and try to get the ham radio working to call for help. I did think Chimera would still be there.
Finally, the lightning laced darkness lightened with the coming dawn. The wind had abated some but still blew with disheartening strength. Murky low cumulus seemed to meet the sea only a few miles from shore. The light was gray and ominous. Rain still curtained the scene. Bare bushes, mud, fallen trees, and coconuts lay everywhere. The dense forest of underbrush, coconut, papaya and mango of yesterday now was a somber, barren waste. The devastation was total. It was as though we had emerged from a deep mine after a particularly severe bombing.
Wearily, we climbed the few feet necessary to look on the windward side of the island. It was even worse. Enormous whitecaps battered the windward beach unmercifully. Where only days before we had gone jogging on the sandy beach, now there was only salt water. The beach had disappeared; sucked away during the night by the hurricane driven waves.
We picked our way down to the beach as soon as we could see clearly.
The anchorage held no trace of Chimera or Ocean Rover, nor was there any trace of either boat on shore. We scanned the horizon slowly to see if there were some sign that one of the boats was impaled on the reef or had sunk in shallow water. There were only the backs of waves marching off into the rainy dimness. Turbid waves broke and cast their milky water up the beach near our feet. Fingers of coral clawed above the surface near shore. How did the four of us make it through that cruel labyrinth in pitch dark the night before? None of us had received more than a scratch.
The real tragedy of the situation hit me with stunning force. That steaming mug of coffee I had visualized a hundred times during the night was not to be. All else paled before that stark fact.
Eric stood ankle deep in the water with the foam of the surf swirling around his feet. He raised his chin as he scanned the beach in one direction, and then turned his head to sweep the waters of the bay until he was looking in the opposite direction along the beach. His eyes strained for some sign of Ocean Rover, which might still shelter his father, or of some sign of Chimera which might hold Julie.
It was unlikely that either person could have made it to Namara. Junius was no swimmer, and Julie, although a strong swimmer, could hardly have fought the fury of the winds before the eye arrived. Still we had to search the shore to be sure.
Eric turned and joined us. His face was pale and drawn, his eyes tortured. He seemed twenty years older than his twenty four. He looked at us searchingly and asked, “What do you guys think? Is Julie alive? And my Dad? God, if I only had taken them ashore.” He held his head, and covered his eyes with both hands.
Joyce stepped close to him and said, “Eric, Julie was a great swimmer, and you said your Dad was wearing a life jacket. Let’s check the beaches here. They’re probably holed up somewhere right now wondering what happened to you.” I wondered if she really believed that. I think she did.
With the prospect of action Eric perked up. “Thanks, Joyce.” He turned to Dennis “Look, why don’t you come with me north? Vern and Joyce can go south and we’ll work our way around the island and meet on the other side.”
We took inventory of what we had brought: Life jackets, two emergency strobe lights, three pair of rubber booties, one flashlight, one folding rope knife left forgotten in a pocket, and the traveler’s checks and passports that Joyce had packed. A quick look around as the morning light increased showed us an unexpected bonanza, Chimera’s dinghy. It was surrounded by fallen coconut trees but had not been damaged. We checked the gas tank of the little engine. Only about a pint of gas remained. Somehow, having the little boat cheered us.
We sat in a row on one of the sides. Dennis said thoughtfully, “You know, nobody lives on this island, right? The nearest village is a couple of miles over the water, and I don’t see any golden arches anywhere. What’s for breakfast? And what about to drink? Shouldn’t we try to catch some of this rain while we can?”
Joyce said “Well, there’re all these coconuts if we can get them open.” She gestured to include the trees fallen at our feet. “Anyway, someone should be here soon to rescue us, don’t you think, Vern? Perry knew we were here.”
“I don’t know, babe,” I replied, “I doubt if anyone from the local villages will be coming this way soon. They probably got just as wiped out as we. As far as Perry and the rest in Suva… They may have troubles of their own. We may be roughing it for a while.”
Eric got up and paced in front of us. “Look, I’ve got to get out of here and find someone to start a search for Julie and my Dad. They could be out there right now. Nobody but us even knows they’re in trouble.” He looked around nervously. It’s only two miles to the next island with a village. I can swim that or take the dinghy. They must have radio contact with Suva at least.”
“Wait, Eric,” I said, “that village is upwind. There’s still a strong sea running, much too strong for the dinghy or for swimming. The nearest downwind island is five miles. You won’t do any good for anyone if you get drowned. Let’s search the island now. It’s the only thing we can do.”
We divided and set out to search the island. As Joyce and I clambered over rocks and debris along the shore it was the first time since arriving during the eye of the storm that we could talk alone. As soon as we were out of earshot of the others she asked me, “Vern, what do you really think Julie’s chances are?”
“I don’t know, darlin’,” I answered, “she’s a good swimmer, and if she was able to get clear of Ocean Rover when it went over, and if she was able to keep breathing until the eye, she could have made it to shore. When the wind shifted after the eye it still was blowing offshore. The nearest island in that direction is Kandavu, and that’s almost twenty miles away.”
Joyce sat down on a rock and buried her face in her hands. “Oh, Vern, Julie’s so young, she’s so sweet and beautiful. She’s got to be all right.” Her shoulders heaved as she cried. I sat beside her, and held her tightly. My own tears welled up from my heart and stung my eyes. With the dam broken, all of the emotion of the last twenty four hours flooded to the surface. We both surrendered to the release of crying. We sobbed together for a long while before going on with the search.
A little later Joyce said thoughtfully, “You know, Eric blames himself for Julie and Junius being out there. If either of them don’t make it he’s going to be very hard on himself.”
“I know. Let’s hope by the time we get back to the beach Julie’s waiting. C’mon, babe, let’s get moving. I’m ready for some scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee; I’ll even settle for instant.”
We completed our half of the circuit and met Eric and Dennis on what remained of the windward beach.
Eric called to us while we were still fifty yards away.
“Any luck? Did you see anything at all?”
“Nothing” I shouted.
“Look,” he said as we neared, “from here you can see the village across the channel. Maybe there’s some way we can signal them that we’re here… A fire or something.”
Dennis was the camper and backpacker. We looked his way for a method of signaling. He said, “We don’t have anything to make a fire with, or any sheets, or anything to signal with. I’ve got no ideas.”
I had one of the small battery powered strobe lights that was part of my life jacket’s equipment. At this distance it wouldn’t do much good during the day, but we decided to try it. We tied it to a branch of a small tree part way up the slope of the hill where there was a good line of sight to the windward island. Perhaps someone there would see it and either investigate, or if that was impossible for them, at least report the signal by radio to Suva.
As we got more and more hungry and thirsty the subject of food supplanted our other subjects of discussion. Joyce picked up a bright green coconut and said, “All we need is a machete. Here is a pint of the purest, sweetest water in the world.”
I pulled out the little folding rope knife which was in the pocket of my jacket. It was already rusting from the salt water and was hard to open. “Here is the machete,” I said and began carving away the dense husk of the green nut. After about fifteen minutes of enthusiastic whittling I got down to the hard inner shell. I cleared the last of the husk covering the three “eyes” of the nut and poked the knife blade through two of them to form a drinking hole and a vent. I offered the opened nut to Joyce. She drank, with much slurping and smacking of lips. Then she passed it on. The milk was delicious. It was as clear as spring water, but between four people didn’t go very far in quenching our thirst. For the next half hour we took turns carving coconuts until our thirst was satisfied. We were still hungry since green coconuts have only water in them. Rather than opening more mature coconuts right there for something to eat, we decided to return over the center of the island to our bay, where we had some protection from the wind.
The light filtering through the clouds and rain was much brighter now. From the elevation of the central ridge we could see most of a three hundred sixty degree panorama. From this vantage we scanned the horizon again, especially the reef about a mile to the west for any sign of the boats. Still no slightest clue to the boats’ fate. The only sign of life we could see in that direction was our bright yellow dinghy near the beach. To the south we could see Ono, five miles distant. The mountains of Kandavu loomed in the misty distance farther south. A solid phalanx of whitecaps marched over the sea from east to west. Those that missed Namara rolled on northwest until they blended with the grey horizon. We started down the hill and climbed over a mango tree that Meli had smashed to the ground. It had a trunk fully four feet across. Unfortunately, it was too early in the season for there to be fruit on the tree.
On the beach we sat together on the trunk of a fallen coconut palm. I unfolded our “machete” and Joyce picked out a semi-mature nut. She knew it had soft, sweet meat inside as well as sweetened milk. I carved as we talked.
Eric sat with his forearms on his knees, his head and hands drooping. Almost to himself he said, “They must be somewhere out there. I’ve got to find a way to get a search started. I’ve got to. God, I’ve got to at least try.”
Joyce put her arm on his shoulders without saying anything. He continued “I should have put them on shore. Dad and Julie couldn’t do anything to help, anyway. It was all so out of control. It’s my fault they’re out there. I’ve got to do something.” He got up and paced. His eyes were red, and his expression was desperate.
“Eric, it was not your fault,” Joyce said forcefully. None of us knew how terrible that wind was going to be. No one. You did all you could.” Eric focused his attention on Joyce wanting to believe what she was saying. He wanted to believe her, but he couldn’t.
He said “Joyce, did you know that Julie’s parents tried to restrain her legally when she said she was going to join me in Tonga? They were so frightened that something horrible would happen to her down here. Since she’s eighteen there was nothing they could do to stop her. She loved and trusted me enough to defy her parents. And now…” He couldn’t continue. Tears gathered in Joyce’s eyes. I whittled on a coconut for few minutes in the silence.
Finally, Eric got control of his voice, and looked over at me. He said, “Vern, I’ve got to get a search going.” He got up as though we could go somewhere right then and get things started. “We’ve been here all morning now and we haven’t even seen a plane. If there were a search for us going on a plane would be out here by now. We’re only thirty five miles from Suva. If Julie hasn’t made it to shore yet she could still be swimming out there; my dad could still be trapped on Ocean Rover. I’ve got to do something. I can’t sit around doing nothing when they might still be holding on out there because they think help is on the way.” He paused and looked out over milky waters of the bay. Finally he said, “It’s rough out there, but I can swim in that. I can make it to Ono and they can radio for help.”
“Eric,” I said “I understand how you feel. At least I think I do, but there’s nothing you can do right now. It’s still blowing at least gale force. You might be able to row the dinghy in that for a while but not for long enough. Think how you would feel if you ended up miles at sea alone in the dinghy. Tomorrow the winds should be down, and it’ll be possible to get to Ono. And if you tried swimming today there’s a good chance you wouldn’t make it at all. The sea is rough, even inside the reef. With the storm waves coming over the windward reef, the currents will be strong and will be running right out the passes to sea,”
Eric hung his head and said “Maybe it will ease up in a couple of hours.”
Dennis asked in a quiet voice “Eric, what happened on Ocean Rover last night? I just know you turned over? What was it like?”
Eric looked at Dennis with red-rimmed eyes and sat down cross legged opposite us. He looked out toward the reef and said, “Right after you and Vern left the boat that last time–it must have been about four o’clock–! I sat down at the radio and got Radio Fiji’s latest prediction—seventy five knots. Ocean Rover passed two days in fifty five knots of wind when I was in Mexico last year. It was tough, but everything held. Seventy five is a lot more than fifty five I know. It was only two weeks ago that I read an account of a thirty seven foot Brown Searunner just like mine weathering a hundred knot hurricane in New Caledonia. The thought kind of reassured me, and I went on deck to check the lines again and to see if there was any last thing I could do before it got dark.”
“Julie came out to me while I was checking the lines and said, ‘I’m really getting scared. Eric, do you think we should go in to shore? ‘ ”
“Dennis, I thought about it. God, I wish I had taken them both in to shore. I really did think about it, but I was almost sure we’d be OK. I thought if worse came to worse we could swim over to Chimera. You guys were only about ten yards away and downwind at that. Besides my Dad didn’t have any rain gear and I thought how miserable it would be on that island.” Eric shook his lowered head slowly, and fell silent for few seconds, then he continued.
“The beach seemed so close. If it got really rough I figured we’d just swim in to shore. Dad’s no swimmer, but he could go that distance OK with a life jacket. He seemed to be all right. He had a book he’d been reading, and he lay down in a bunk forward to try to read. He put his trust in me just like Julie. They both thought I’d keep them safe. I made the decision to ride it out on Ocean Rover. Did you guys think of going on shore?”
“Yes,” I answered, “but I thought about the same as you. If worse comes to worse we swim. I’ve never imagined that water could be so rough I couldn’t swim in it. Joyce and Dennis are good swimmers, too.”
“Boy, was that a mistake to think of swimming, ” Eric said. I found that out after we capsized. I’m glad that when Julie asked me if she should put on our mask and fins in the cockpit I agreed. I almost said no. That was about dusk. Those waves were already getting pretty big, and I don’t know about you, but we were beginning to really jerk around on the anchor lines. I remember looking at the barometer about six or seven o’clock and it had taken a serious dive to about 29.2.
“A couple of hours later it was terrible. Ocean Rover was surging up over those waves and jerking at the end of her anchor lines so bad that we had to hold on in the cockpit to keep from getting thrown around. Dad had to give up on his book, I guess. We were getting some water over the bow, and the spray and the rain stung like hail. You know, the noise is what I’ll probably remember most. You know what I mean? It was so strong I could feel it with my stomach.”
“I finally gave up on using the engine as you did, Vern, but kept it idling just in case.”
“Julie was with me in the cockpit the whole time. One time she shouted in my ear and asked me how to find the shore if we had to swim. I told her to swim with the wind in her face and angle left. God, what dumb advice that was. When I tried to look up over the cabin top one time a blast of wind blew my lips back from my teeth and my cheeks flapped–I’ve ridden my motorcycle at a hundred and fifteen miles per hour and never had that happen. No one could swim with their face into that wind.”
“Julie saved my life. In the middle of it all she got down on her knees in the cockpit and put my fins on while I was still trying to use the engine and steering wheel.
Without the fins I wouldn’t have had a chance. She put hers on, too. We just held our masks. They’d have blown off if we wore them.”
“About nine o’clock Ocean Rover tacked unusually hard to starboard and just lay there. I remember screaming “come on, come on” as I tried to coax her back. Then a blast of wind hit at about the same time we went up on a wave. We rolled back and to starboard and didn’t stop.”
“I held on to the wheel. Julie had been sitting across from me and must have fallen out as we went over and been trapped under the deck when we completed the roll. I came up in the air pocket of the cockpit with the deck above me. Strangely enough there was a dim light; I think I had forgotten to turn off the engine room light, and the glow was coming through the skylight in the cockpit deck. I heard the diesel engine still running and reached up to kill it. My rain jacket was getting in the way so I struggled out of it. I almost dove out under the boat to look for Julie right then, but I remembered that Dad was in the front cabin. I didn’t know if Julie was okay or not, but Dad was trapped in there.”
“The trouble was—which cabin was he in? I had never looked at the hatches upside down. I was disoriented. It probably only took a few seconds to figure it out, but it seemed like and hour before I could decide which were the correct hatch boards. They were hard to get out. You know how they slide down into their slot? I had to dive down and pull the first board down to get it out. Dad helped with the next one from the inside.
I ducked into the cabin and pushed my mask up on my forehead. The compartment reeked of gasoline fumes. I keep the scuba air compressor in that compartment and the gas tank was leaking. Dad was OK. The reading lights were still burning underwater. My main batteries were strapped down and still working even upside down. Without light it would have been much worse. Clothing, plastic containers, and floorboards were sloshing back and forth. The gasoline made it hard to breathe, and it stung my eyes.
I was scared to death for Julie and wanted to go out after her, but I had to help Dad. He didn’t know anything about where things were or anything. He doesn’t even know how to swim. He’s only been on Ocean Rover a couple of times before this visit.” Eric paused and then continued. “If he hadn’t been on his sabbatical and traveling around the world he never would have stopped to visit me. Why did it have to be now that he came? Dad was really calm, much calmer than I.”
“Suddenly Ocean Rover hit something hard and we jerked. The cabin top flexed under my feet as though it were collapsing. I thought we were on the reef. I told Dad we would have to leave. He said he felt he should stay inside since he couldn’t swim very well, and was OK where he was. I ripped off the hose from the sink drain to let some fresh air into the cabin. Then the boat ground hard against something and started to go down at the bow. Maybe it was just the mast hitting the bottom, but I pictured us about to break up on the reef. I thought of Julie out there struggling on coral or maybe clinging to Ocean Rover. I was frantic.
As the bow dropped the air bubble in the cabin ran aft and we were forced into the compartment nearest the cockpit. I kept talking out loud about Julie and what I was thinking. Dad talked to me calmly, and I got back in control. He’s a really brave man.
I told Dad it wasn’t safe for him to stay with the boat. There would be huge seas hitting the reef, and Ocean Rover would break up when she hit. We had to get out and swim for shore; I swam forward to the deck hatch in the bow. It had come open and a sail bag was jammed into it. I pushed the bag through. As I fought with it I could catch a breath whenever the water in the cabin sloshed enough to send the bubble of air that far forward. The air was still foul with the gasoline, and I was pretty dizzy from it by then. I wanted the hatch clear so Dad and I could dive out through it. Then I remembered that the scuba tanks were stowed in that compartment. I found one, mounted a regulator on it, and gave it to him. I explained how to use it. He wouldn’t be able to fit through the hatch with the tank on his back, so I showed him how to lower it through first and then follow. I put a gas-inflated life vest on him and told him that he must wait until he was clear of the boat to pull the toggle that would inflate it. All this time the hull shook and ground under our feet. ”
Tears were flowing from Eric’s eyes, now, and he went on with his story in a helpless monotone.
“We both stood over the hatch, and I tried to give last minute instructions to him. He got a little confused at one point, and I had to back up and explain it over again. Ocean Rover was crunching into something and I wanted desperately to get out while there was still time. When Dad put his face in the water he couldn’t breathe through his mouth alone and water got into his nose. I went back to the dive locker and found a dive mask and put that on him.”
“Finally we were ready. I told him ‘Dad, I love you. I hope you make it. He said, ‘I love you too, son.’ Don’t worry about me. I’ve had a long and happy life. Go find Julie.’ The air pocket swirled away, and I gasped one last breath and ducked through the hatch.
“I swam, and swam, and swam. Always the deck was above me. Somehow I got turned around and was going the wrong way. Suddenly I ran into the life lines that run along the edge of the deck, and I couldn’t figure out how to get past them. I thought, ‘So this is the end.'”
“I got past them and popped up into… I don’t know what to call it. It was like having a fire hose directed against my face. My mask disappeared instantly, and I turned my head to try to get some air. I had been holding my breath for a long time. I couldn’t breathe, not really. I gulped half air and half water. The noise was overpowering–just indescribable. I drifted for just a second and felt a line in my hand.
I let go of the line at first, then grabbed and held on with all of my strength. I pulled myself along it and climbed up on something. When the lightning flashed I saw it was my overturned dinghy. I was very confused. The last time I saw the dinghy it was lashed down on deck under layers of half inch line. Was Ocean Rover somehow floating upright? Was the dinghy floating loose? Another lightning bolt lit up part of the hull next to me and it showed one of Ocean Rover’s outer floats. The dinghy was floating alongside the float. A line dangling from it had saved me.”
“I had to move. Waves kept washing over me, and blasts of wind made it almost impossible to breathe. I reached up and pulled myself atop the float. The wind picked me up, lifted me clear off of it. I reached out for anything. I caught a line at the end of the float as I fell into the water. It was blind luck. I pulled my way back onto Ocean Rover and made my way about a dozen feet before another gust blew me off, this time sliding me along the end of the hull. I caught the line again with one hand.
The third time I worked myself nearly all the way to the bow before the wind got under me. It dumped me on the underwing. There were life lines on the underwing that I installed in case of capsize, but I was swept past them before I could grab one. I had my hands out grabbing for anything. As I slid off the underwing past the main hull my fingers closed on a rung of the ladder built on the transom next to the rudder. If I’d missed that I would have been swept away completely.”
“In the wind shadow of the transom I could breathe a little. The lightning gave me some light, and I saw a shape just below the surface of the water. I didn’t know if it was a body, or some clothing, or a sail bag, or what. I could have let go and grabbed it, but if I did I’d never get back. It might have been Julie or my Dad.” Eric stopped speaking. He couldn’t go on for some time.
The four of us sat there quietly. I watched the breakers crash over the reef. The birds were back, and again I wondered how such fragile things could have survived those awesome conditions. The gulls patrolled the shore looking for dead fish. The bosun birds looked for swimming small fry, but the water was so turbid they weren’t having much luck. The sun was high, and, even though the sky was clearing a little, we were still protected from its direct
After a while, with some of the emotion temporarily washed out of him, Eric continued. “The next half hour I just hung on. Each wave broke over the hull and covered me completely. When it passed I would catch a breath of water and air and hold on with all my strength as the next wave crashed over me. I gave up on trying to get up on the hull. Even if I had something to hang on to I would just be like a piece of laundry flapping in the wind. The transom was the only protection I had. I thought I’d have to stay there for the next eight or ten hours while the second half of the hurricane passed. I wondered if I could. I wasn’t sure at all. I couldn’t even think. It was a pattern of inhale, hold my breath and hang on hard, the wave passes, exhale and grab a breath, another wave…”
“After a while I realized the wind was less. Visibility improved, too, and I could see more of the hulls when the lightning flashed. Finally I climbed on the hull and braced myself against the rudder sticking up into the air. The wind dropped off rapidly. I shouted for Julie and Dad. I couldn’t see Chimera, but as the lightning flashed, I could see the island. Then I saw your lights to seaward and I figured Chimera had dragged anchor out there. I yelled and could see you flashing your light around for me, but you didn’t see me I guess.”
“The wind stopped, and I could see stars. That’s when I realized that this was just the eye of the storm and it was all going to start again when the eye passed. I wondered could I survive more punishment? Was Julie on Chimera? Had she made it to the beach? Had Dad made it? I couldn’t think what to do next. Then I saw your flashlight on the beach, and I thought it must be Fijians, who might be able to help me. I know no one lives on the island, but my brain was really scrambled. I had to swim to shore, but I kept hanging on.”
“The wind began to shift to the north so I knew the eye was passing. I had to make up my mind quickly. I slid off the hull and swam as fast as I could for your light on the beach. I yelled ‘Don’t turn them off.’ They were the only real thing in my world. It seemed only seconds before I was in the shore break. I scraped my shoulder on a rock and crawled up on shore and yelled at you guys.”
We sat for a while and talked about what had happened. It seemed to help Eric a lot to talk about it. I had kept working on the coconuts throughout Eric’s account, and had a respectable pile of opened nuts.
“Hey, everybody, breakfast time,” I said. “Scrambled coconut, and coconut juice. Lots of vitamin C. The coffee machine’s out of order, however. The management apologizes. Eat hearty, me buckos” The change of subject did everyone good. The coconut tasted wonderful.
It was still morning. The afternoon stretched before us.
By afternoon the rain became intermittent. The wind still blew with gale force but had slacked somewhat and backed into the north. Joyce and I walked hand in hand along the beach. About five hundred yards away Eric and Dennis were making a shelter from palm fronds.
Joyce stopped and turned to me. She put her arms around my waist and looked directly into my eyes for a moment. Then she said “Vern, I’m so happy that I’m here with you. I don’t think I can ever tell you how much I love you. If I were alone on this island wondering where you were — if you were even alive — I…” Her eyes filled and she pressed her face into my neck. I held her tightly and felt my own tears well up.
“Darling,” I said, “if it weren’t for Julie and Junius I’d be shouting my thanks to all the gods that you’re here with me right now. Will you marry me?” I asked, holding her far enough away from me to see her face.
“You donkey,” she sniffled, “you’ve already forgotten we were married ten years ago. Forty five years old and already you’re senile.” Then she smiled and said “Sure I’ll marry you, turkey, but where can we honeymoon? It’s a little hard to get airplane reservations today.”
“How would you like a honeymoon on a desert island in beautiful, tropical Fiji? I just happen to have reservations that include very private accommodations right over there out of sight of our camp. “I smiled at her and cupped her face in my hands.
“I do,” she murmured into my ear and led me by the hand to the “honeymoon suite.”
Later we sat in the sand letting the rush of water from the waves swirl up around us. An occasional break in the cloud cover let the intense sun through for minutes at a time. It was the end of March, the beginning of fall in Fiji. The sun was hot but not as impossibly intense as it had been during December and January. It was more cheerful with the sunlight, but, with no shade, it was more comfortable when the sun was behind the clouds.
Joyce tangled herself around me and said, “When we get out of all this let’s go somewhere away from everybody and just be alone. Someplace where we don’t have to do anything, not take care of business or work on a boat or anything. Let’s just hike in the woods, eat, sleep, and make love, OK?” I nodded, and she continued. “You know something funny? I feel odd about all this. Our boat is gone with no insurance,–probably sunk–our friends may be hurt or even worse, we’re on an uninhabited island with nothing to eat or drink but coconuts, and I feel wonderful. I feel more alive and happy than ever. The only thing is, with Eric suffering so, I feel guilty about feeling so good.” She rolled over and rested on her elbows looking out over the water of the bay. Foamy water slid up the beach and stopped just short of her feet. After a few moments she asked me, “Vern, do you think you’d want to do it again? I mean get another boat and go cruising again?” She twisted her neck to look up at me, squinting into the sun.
“Joyce,” I began and paused to look inside my mind, “If I had to make an irrevocable decision right now, it would be ‘absolutely not. Still I have a hunch that after this is all over, and some time has passed, I may not feel that way. How about you?”
She said “Well, it’s only been a few months since we bought Chimera, but they sure have been good months. I’ve never met so many wonderful people in such a short time, and never had so much excitement, that’s for sure. I don’t just mean right now. Remember that night on Gau? I was so scared, probably almost as scared as I was last night. You know that could have been just as bad.”
We had entered the pass into Gau’ s lagoon at three in the afternoon, dropped the sails, and motored toward the village of Wakima. Gau is an island lying about fifty files east of Suva. Dennis had left the boat a few days earlier to do some hitchhiking in the backcountry of the main island, Viti Levu. Ocean Rover was due to meet us that afternoon and bring us mail from Suva.
There was a very shallow bay in front of the village, and one friend had warned us that Gau’s lagoon was dangerous and had many uncharted coral heads.
We crept forward very cautiously as we entered the bay. The bottom changed continuously. Our depth sounder showed first very deep water then, abruptly, the shallow water over a coral pinnacle, then deep water again.
The charted anchorage lay about a mile southwest of the village. Since we planned to visit the village the next day we wanted to be closer than that so we poked around Wakima’s bay searching for a safe location. Finally we found an apparently acceptable spot and dropped the hook. I jumped in the water with mask and fins to check the surroundings. The anchor chain led over the hard coral. There was very little sand. The anchor was hooked on a shelf of jagged coral. I circled the boat and found three large, shallow coral heads within the radius of our swing at anchor. As long as the wind held steady we would be safe where we were. In every direction except the narrow path we had entered shallow coral heads waited to impale us should the wind shift or should we drag anchor. I skinned down to the bottom and moved the anchor to better its precarious grip on the coral. That might help.
“How’s it look?” Joyce asked me as I climbed back on deck.
“Not as good as I’d like,” I answered shaking the water out of my hair, “especially since there are so many obstacles around. If we decide later to stay, I’ll set a second anchor to hold us in a wind shift. We simply can’t afford to swing very far from this spot. The wind’s been steady for a couple of days so maybe there won’t be a wind shift.” Lord, did I call it wrong.
“OK, say, isn’t that Ocean Rover on the horizon?” Joyce pointed almost dead astern.
“Looks like it, and they’re still pretty far out,” I answered. They’ll have the devil of a time coming in that pass and getting to the anchorage in this evening light. They’re going to have to spend the night sailing outside the lagoon.”
“Oh, I hope not” Joyce said, “I want to find out what went on in Suva while we were gone, and they should have our mail.”
I reached for the binoculars. “They’re pretty fast so maybe they can make it before it’s too late. I’ll put the dinghy in the water to give them a hand if they need it.” The dinghy was already inflated and on deck, so I slid it into the water and mounted the little Seagull engine on it.
Joyce ducked below and dug potatoes and squash out of the vegetable bin and began preparations for dinner. I waited on deck to follow Ocean Rover’s progress.
I glanced toward the village. The bay stretched almost a third of a mile between us. The clear expanse of the bay looked inviting, however the chart showed extreme shallow water. Visiting the village tomorrow would require a long dinghy ride.
About five o’clock Ocean Rover was close enough for me to see that Eric was planning to enter the lagoon even though the light was terrible. The surface of the water reflected the light of the setting sun as brightly as a mirror, and it was impossible to see anything below the surface. No markers or lights indicated where the pass lay. You had to have visibility to get to the anchorage safely.
I called down to Joyce “Hey, Ocean Rover’s just about to the pass, and the visibility’s really bad. I’m going to take the dinghy to meet them and guide them into the lagoon. I’ll take them over to the regular anchorage. Should be back within the hour.”
“OK, we’re having bean goop for dinner and that’ll keep. Be careful.”
The little Metzler dinghy bucked along under me with the Seagull buzzing furiously. I headed downwind directly toward Ocean Rover. I could pick a shortcut through the reef in the shallow dinghy since no surf broke on the coral. I waved to attract Eric and Julie’s attention, but they were too far away and too intent on their navigation to notice.
The trimaran was heading directly for the reef. Clouds had gathered overhead making the light even worse than before. With no markers at the pass, it was impossible to see to enter the lagoon. Ocean Rover closed the reef, and I waved frantically and shouted as loud as I could, but there was no reaction. I had the Seagull wide open, but two horsepower just wouldn’t get the dinghy up on a plane. I just plowed on.
Moments before she should surely founder on the coral, Ocean Rover turned south to parallel the reef, and I relaxed a bit. Still they weren’t heading for the pass Joyce and I had entered, but another about a quarter mile south. I followed in not-so-hot pursuit.
I caught up with them just as they entered the pass.
“Hey, you turkeys, what do you mean coming into the lagoon without the services of a pilot? How in the hell did you find this pass in this light?” The clouds had thickened and it was getting really dim as evening approached.
“Hi, Vern, say how did you sneak up on us? We ran into some people in Suva who drew us a chart of the pass and told us how to line up those two peaks over there to get a bearing to enter on. Come on aboard. We’ll drag the dinghy.”
I tied the dinghy astern and joined Eric and Julie in the cockpit to guide them to the anchorage. The clouds continued to thicken. By the time we felt our way to a safe anchorage and got the hook down and set, it began raining, and the wind shifted. A squall was approaching rapidly.
I looked nervously toward Chimera about a half mile away, and thought of our single anchor precariously hooked in the coral.
“Eric, it’s really closing in. I’d better get moving. The wind’s already up to fifteen, and it’s getting worse. Can I borrow a jacket?” The wind was now blowing directly from Chimera.
“Why don’t you wait out the squall here, Vern, it probably won’t last more than an hour?” Julie asked.
“Well we’re in an awful spot and I might be able to get out an extra anchor if there’s trouble. We’ll see you in the morning. Thanks for bringing the mail.”
Eric’s jacket protected me from the chill wind and rain that presaged the approaching squall. I set out at full throttle. Against the fifteen knot wind the little dinghy barely made any progress at all.
Suddenly a blast of wind struck and almost upended the dinghy. Rain fell in solid sheets. A full blown squall was on us. I looked back at Ocean Rover. Eric had turned on his mast head strobe light, and its 50,000 candlepower white flash arrowed through the gathering darkness. If I had to turn and run back to the trimaran, its beacon would guide me. Ahead I could see Chimera, but dimly and only between blasts of wind and rain.
“Come on, Joyce, turn on the anchor light, or the spreader light.” I said out loud. I beamed my thoughts at her with a will and leaned forward as far as I could to hold the front of the dinghy down in the wet gusts.
Another few minutes and it was totally dark. I could still make out the strobe downwind, but that was all. The wind increased so much that I had to move forward in the dinghy to keep it from flipping over backwards. From my position I couldn’t reach the engine control so I steered with my toes holding the engine tiller. I squinted into the driving rain and spray, but still could not see any lights from Chimera. I was navigating solely from the direction of the wind, and the wind could shift. Damn, I didn’t even have a flashlight to signal with.
The chop built up quickly, and I was grateful to be wearing Eric’s jacket. Another worry struck me. The Seagull engine’s tank only held a liter of gas, and it wasn’t full when I started after Ocean Rover. If I ran out of gas I might guide the dinghy downwind to the trimaran’s sanctuary with the oars, but if the wind shifted a lot, I’d be swept out over the reef to sea.
Long moments passed and still I saw no light from Chimera. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction to see her, or Chimera might now be dragging anchor. There was nothing Joyce could do about that without a dinghy.
“I must be far enough by now” I thought. Then I did see a light. A dim haze of light showed off to my right. The village. “If I can see that, I’ve come far enough. If Chimera is where she belongs I ought to see her.”
The gas had to be about gone. I had two choices. One to keep searching in the dark, and the other to try to reach the village to either get some gas or to wait out the squall.
I decided on the village. Getting blown out to sea and having to row all night long to get back had no appeal at all. I turned toward the village angling against the wind still steering with my foot. I took another look around.
A light. Not a hundred yards away. Joyce had finally turned on a light. I turned toward it hoping I wouldn’t be coming home to a holed and sinking boat. No. As I closed the last fifty feet I saw Chimera bobbing in the chop with Joyce anxiously peering out into the gloom.
I climbed on board and then placed a couple of five gallon water jugs in the dinghy to keep it from flipping in the wind. Joyce and I went below. She had a cup of hot chocolate laced with a generous dollop of rum waiting. “You piece of shit,” she said affectionately, “I was so worried something had happened to you. Why’d you take so long?” Her words were a bit muffled with her face buried in my shoulder.
“Sorry, Darling, next time I’ll phone if I’m going to be late, and remind you to light a candle in the window. Why didn’t you give me a light to guide me? I was afraid you were long gone, or sunk.”
“Oh, Vern, I was so scared. There was lightning everywhere and I was afraid of Chimera getting hit. I thought it was dangerous to have lights on in an electrical storm, and I could see around the boat a lot better with all of the lights out. I was sure we were going to hit one of those coral heads you saw this afternoon. Oh, hold me tight, please.”
NOTES ON ENDING
(Arrival of John with the dinghy, paddle to Ono, arriving at the island of Ono)
We entered the bay fronting the village. The bay was shaped like a carrot with the point bitten off. John and I were weary to the bone after the long paddle. We dragged the dinghy up on the beach, and the three of us walked up into the village, or what used to be a village.
Every building in sight lay flattened. A giant hand might have leveled every building and tree over four feet high. Boards, clothing, sheets of corrugated iron from roofs, and coconut trees littered the landscape. Here and there a floor and its supporting trusses survived and bore piles of belongings hastily retrieved. People bustled to and fro. Some carried loads of scattered household furniture, others small children. Many had cuts and minor wounds.
Two ladies took Joyce in tow and led her off into the heart of the village. John guided me in another direction. We stopped by the remains of John’s house. He rummaged in a dresser standing alone in the center of the naked floor and produced a pair of trousers and a shirt, which he handed me.
We climbed the hill by the village. A stream cascaded beside us to wander through the village below. We reached a pool which was the community bath. John left to help with the cleanup work while I gratefully scrubbed off the accumulated salt and sweat of the last couple of days. I climbed out of the pool refreshed, dried off with a towel he had brought, pulled on the clean dry clothes he had given me and sat down to look around.
At the back of the village one lone, long building still stood. Its cinder-block and stucco construction had saved it from destruction. It bustled with activity. Several villagers tended two large cooking pots in the yard. The smoke from the cooking fires curled up around the bubbling cauldrons, and an insane vision of Joyce and I becoming the main course for the evening meal flitted across my mind.
Some villagers were hurrying back and forth with armloads of bedding, with chairs and with kerosene lanterns. They were setting up a barracks for the night. Throughout the area people worked to clear the debris and to salvage what they could.
The village animals seemed unaffected by the confusion. The dogs lazed in whatever shade there was, and the pigs rooted about looking for morsels or lay snoozing as their piglets squealed around them fighting for a teat.
John returned and led me down to the school house.
Joyce was there and told me she had been similarly treated to a bath. She sported a black skirt and a pink sweater with a kitten embroidered on the front. With her dark complexion, and long dark hair she might have been a member of the village. Everybody seemed busy. There was an air of cheerfulness in the air and none of the dejection or sadness that I expected. It was as though this was a frequent happening and no big problem. I found out, however, that it was indeed a problem. All of the cash crop of tobacco, kava, taro, and manioc, as well as the food supplies of the village had been ruined by the storm. No one here had been seriously injured, but on the other side of the island a stone church which had served as shelter during hurricanes for 75 years had collapsed killing 16 people outright and injuring ten others. There were virtually no medical facilities available, and some of the wounded were in critical condition.
As guests Joyce and I were the first to be served dinner. We took the bowls and spoons we were handed and stepped up to the largest cooking pot. A gap-toothed smiling old lady ladled our bowls full of soup. We found chairs and sat down to eat. The soup was a thin chicken broth with flour dumplings in it. The rest of the village lined up and soon there were laughing, joking people all around. After dinner all sang by the light of the fire and the two kerosene Coleman lanterns. Joyce and I pleaded fatigue early and were led to the only other intact building, the teacher’s house, where we shared the floor with a dozen or so others already stretched out. The floor was hard but at least not as lumpy as the palm frond mattress we had endured the previous night. We fell asleep holding hands amid the snores of our myriad hosts.
We were up early. Before the sun arose over the horizon beyond the mouth of the bay we were walking on the hillside overlooking the village, A few people were already up and bustling about. Down by the schoolhouse the cook fire had been built up and cooking was underway. It looked from our vantage that breakfast would be more soup. People we encountered greeted us politely and went about their way. No one stopped to chat. There was much to do.
Until we arrived at the village our dilemma put us at the center of the universe. The whole world should have mobilized to help us. Now I understood what it was like just to be one person in the midst of a disaster. Whatever my problems, there were worse ones around me. Joyce and I were just two among many with problems, and compared to most, our problems were minor. Homes had been lost, people hurt, some killed even. There was food to find and prepare, wounds to dress, children to care for, homes to be rebuilt.
We sat down with our bowls of “breakfast”, bowls of sugared water with white flour dumplings. Joyce muttered “I wish I had a coconut.”
We would have helped with the work of the village, but there was nothing for us to do so we wandered toward the bay and walked out along the water to sit atop a small promontory near the mouth of the bay. There were only broken clouds in the sky, now. The wind still blew but had reverted to the seasonal trade wind blowing at 10 knots from the southeast. The panorama of bay, lagoon, islands, and reef had lost its luster for us. We sat and looked at it all but, knowing we must now leave this world for the one we left behind, weighed on us.
“How long do you think we’ll be here?” Joyce asked.
“John said Eric and Dennis went over to the next village and that the plane we saw picked them up. I suppose as soon as someone can, they’ll be out here. If the rest of Fiji got hit as hard as they did here, there might be a lot to do besides rescue us. I guess it could be a day or two. I hope it won’t be long.”
“Me too, Vern, now that it’s over I want to get on with it. Do you think we should stick around and look for Chimera?”
“I don’t think so. If she sank on the reef which she probably did, it would cost a fortune to get equipment down here to raise her. Then we’d have to completely rebuild her. All of the equipment will be shot. The mast was destroyed. It would take a year at least to rebuild. It would take a lot of money too. If we stay it might take a long time to find her, too. I’m not sure I feel up to staying here without a boat. Watching others going about their lives, taking off for New Zealand, or New Caledonia, or whatever, would hurt a lot. I want to put this all behind me.”
“Look, look,” Joyce jumped up and pointed out the bay. “Sails. It’s Capella. Good old Capella.” We both jumped up and started waving wildly.
We ran down to the beach to await them. Capella sailed majestically into the bay. She dropped her sails and let go her anchor. We splashed out into the shallows to meet Steve, Dede, Kurt and Marsha, all owners of the Cheoy Lee Offshore 41.
I helped Kurt and Steve drag the dinghy up on the beach. Everybody was talking at once. When the flurry was over I asked Steve “Where’s Eric and what’s happening in Suva?”
“Eric flew in yesterday, and that’s the first we knew just how bad it was down here. We had some pretty strong winds in Suva, but nothing really serious. I guess in the places Meli hit the radios were completely knocked out. Radio’s the only communication with the islands.”
Joyce asked “Has there been any word at all of Julie?”
Steve answered “None, today is the first day anybody is even out searching. I don’t know what happened in the government, but they don’t seem to have any organization at all. Early this morning all the yachts that could got underway. There’s a search going on all over the area using the yachts and the faster dinghies, the ones capable of planning. The whole thing is coordinated with the ham radio net. There’s been no word yet. On the way back to Suva we’re going to go by these northern islands at Astrolabe to look for signs of the boats or of Julie or of Eric’s dad.”
Some of the villagers came down to the beach to greet the newcomers. Most kept on with their work. When our rescuers found out how barren the food stocks of the village were they went back out to Capella and loaded up most of their canned goods and brought them back to the beach. Within twenty minutes we were on board and hoisting anchor.
Once clear of the bay’s headland we hoisted the main, but continued to motor. We were following the shore lines of the islands as we passed them and with full sail we couldn’t have maneuvered well.
Our friends had heard some of the story from Eric, but as we crossed the first channel, we told them our version of it.
Throughout the tale Dede kept making trips to the galley to produce snacks and delicacies for us. Our lack of appetite disappointed her. After all we should have been starving after so long on a desert island. Joyce explained that three days of oily coconut meat probably called for dieting, not feasting.
We swung in close to the shoreline. We scanned the rocks with binoculars. Ahead I saw something orange and thought it might be a life jacket. We pulled in closer; I saw no movement nearby. As we neared my stomach began to churn. I imagined finding Julie lying on the rocks–dead.
Finally we were close enough to see what it was. A piece of cloth, perhaps an old tablecloth blown there by the wind. We all sighed in relief. There was still hope that Julie would be found alive. For the next hour we searched the coves and beaches of the islands. Atone o’clock we heard news of the search at Kandavu twenty miles south. The searchers found Ocean Rover. She was broken up in small pieces on the rocky beach. Parts of her were over 100 feet from the water. Eric’s father’s body was with the wreckage.
At the news, Joyce put her arms around me. We held each other and cried for a long time. We cried for Eric. We cried for ourselves. I’m not really sure what we cried for. It felt as though a lifetime of emotion was welling up inside me and flowing out through every pore of my body. I cannot put a name to the emotion I felt.
That, of course, was not the end of the story.
Junius’ body was found with the wreckage of Ocean Rover a couple of days later. The trimaran had broken free of her anchors and drifted south over Astrolabe reef and then 20 miles to Kandavu. There was no part of the boat found that was larger than a man could carry and pieces were found hundreds of feet from the shoreline. The wreckage had been driven ashore by waves that could have exceeded 50 feet in height.
Julie was never found. In all likelihood she drowned shortly after Ocean Rover capsized.
Although we didn’t know it until after returning to the US, Chimera was found a couple of weeks later. It had drifted to Astrolabe reef and had sunk after being holed crossing the reef. Natives and Yachties salvaged much of the gear on board. All we ever saw of it was the sextant and a camera that had been in a waterproof case. Joyce still has the sextant.
In Suva, Eric, Joyce and I were taken in by the Yachties community. Eric was particularly in need of support. The emotional impact of losing his father, his fiancée and his boat was almost too much to bear.
Julie had joined Eric shortly after her 18th birthday. She did so against the will of her parents. They even tried to restrain her legally, but could not. The day I arrived in Suva on Capella Eric asked me to make the call to Julie’s parents. He did not feel that he could talk to them. I made the call. It was night in Washington state where they lived. Her father answered the phone when I called. I explained what had happened and that it was unlikely that Julie would be found. His first words were “What I don’t understand is that Julie is gone and Eric is not.” That was the most difficult call I have ever made or expect to make.
After Eric’s return to the US, Julie’s parents helped him recover from the overwhelming depression and guilt he felt. He always blamed himself for the deaths and could not be persuaded that he could not have avoided the tragedy.
That was in 1980 and we have remained friends through all that time, although I have not seen him in person since Fiji. He is now about to be married to a beautiful lady with two young daughters. The youngest looks remarkably like Julie. He is happy and yet there still is a brooding vulnerable side to him that tells me that his loss will never be far from his thoughts.
Joyce and I emerged unscathed. Had it not been for the loss of life we would almost have been jubilant. I have since seen the same phenomenon in other friends who have lost their boats and walked away. The loss of property is so far outweighed by the joy of surviving that the net effect is a high.
The boat was not insured. Since Joyce and I had sold most of our possessions before leaving we returned with little more than the clothes on our backs. Arriving in San Francisco in January in shorts and sandals was definitely a shock. We were not without resources, however. We had property at Tahoe and a residence that we had rented to friends.
The first day back we stayed with Joyce’s parents in Daly City. One of her mother’s friends was a reporter for the Chronicle. He asked for an interview and we met him that afternoon. We told him the story. It was difficult to do. We both were charged with so much emotion that it became difficult to talk when the subject of Julie and Junius was reached. Even today, twelve years later, when I read the manuscript I find tears in my eyes.
At the end of the interview the reporter asked: “Would you do it again?”
Both Joyce and I chimed: “Yes, of course!” and Joyce’s mother’s jaw dropped at least six inches. The next day we visited yacht brokerages in Marin to start looking for another boat. Several months later we found Galadriel in Oxnard. She is one of the most beautiful trimarans I have ever known. We sold our residence to buy it. We left the next February for Mexico where we spent a year cruising the Sea of Cortez and the west coast of the mainland before leaving for the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, and Tahiti, but that’s another story.
Joyce is sailing Galadriel still in the Sea of Cortes. Vern is living in South Lake Tahoe working as a Real Estate Broker to refill the cruising Kitty, but we knew that, didn’t we?