Kia Orana from the Cook Islands!
We last left you at sea, on passage from Bora Bora to Aitutaki, a little jewel in the Cook Islands. Well, we love it so much here that we’ve decided to swallow the anchor and stay forever. Just kidding.
But because the entrance channel is so shallow and tricky, very few boats visit Aitutaki, and it’s easier to get to know local people here than it was in more populated places, like Tahiti and Bora Bora. I love it when we’re on an island small enough where Jim can get all excited saying things like, “Guess what! They’ve got CRUNCHY peanut butter at the gas station!” Know what I mean?
As we mentioned, the passage was a little rough, 25 knots gusting past 30 with big seas and lots of splash in the cockpit.
Then, of course, the wind died, but we had fuel enough. Our max surfing speed on this trip was 12.8 knots. We will be re-installing the anti-splash weather cloths for the next passage. I (K) finally figured out how to take a video that shows the size of the waves as we see them, but still photos make them look like blue blobs, and you’ve seen enough of those. Videos will have to wait until we get better internet—here you pay $7.50 for half an hour, or thirty-six bucks NZ for 150 gooey-slow megabytes. Ouch.
Here’s the mooring we had in Bora Bora that was a little too close to some hotel bungalows for comfort, just before leaving. But at ten bucks a night, what the heck.
Here’s Don and Deb on Buena Vista (a Peterson 44) leaving Bora Bora for Suvarov in the Northern Cooks, and then Samoa. We enjoyed their company for several days. Don’t know when we’ll see them again, but hope it’s soon.
Before leaving Bora Bora, Jim went aloft to inspect the rig. Sockdolager got an A+.
500 miles and 5 days later: Here’s the entrance to the Aitutake channel as seen from outside the reef. Not easy to find in spite of all the stakes, especially on a cloudy day. The electronic charts are about 300 feet off, too. It's all eyeball navigation in there.
Here’s the north side of the channel as seen from a Tayana 37 named Charisma, out of San Francisco. You’ll hear more about Bob and Ann’s big adventure shortly. That’s a coral rock ledge near the surface, and Charisma is slightly to the right of center in the main channel, which is very narrow, maybe 40 feet wide, and nearly a mile long.
Here’s the other (south) side of the channel, taken from Sockdolager in mid-channel, with our beam of 8 feet. Big difference on a cloudy day. If you go back a couple of posts, you can see a Google Earth view of this channel. We stuck the Google Earth image on an iPod for quick reference, but didn’t use it.
It’s essential to transit the channel at high tide, and the range of tide depends somewhat on the moon and the wind, but it’s around 2 feet tops. So, when they say a 5-foot draft should be okay at high tide but a six foot draft is pretty chancy, and you learn that Charisma draws 5 feet eleven inches, you can safely conclude that Bob and Ann are risk-takers… wait, better make that WERE risk-takers. Stay tuned. Here’s our reception committee in the inner harbor.
John and Lisa aboard the Vancouver, Washington-based Lagoon 44 catamaran Orcinius kindly let us raft up to them in the snug inner harbor. Charisma was rafted to her other side.
We’re still the smallest boat in most harbors.
Not only did they let us tie alongside, they had cold beers waiting for us! Oh the joy of a coldie on a hot forehead and a dry gullet.
We 3 boat crews stuck together on several excursions, the most memorable being a 3-mile, 3-dinghy ride to Honeymoon Cay (see top photo) for a day of beachcombing and snorkeling. That’s John in the foreground.
The sand was smooth… cinematically smooth…
…and crisscrossed with critter tracks everywhere. Here’s a highway junction for, we think, baby turtles…
…and an aerial view of a hermit crab oasis in the desert.
… and proof that even turtles (or coconut crabs) can do wheelies.
There is a kite-boarding school on the cay, and students were busy doing “field research.” This guy actually wished for more wind as he whistled past.
This launch ramp must be on the final exam.
And then we went snorkeling, in two places bordering a mile-wide flat of shallow water you could walk across. Jim (say, does he look totally buff in this photo, or what) plus Bob and John prepared for towing ops, and we ladies supervised it in, uh, comfort.
The snorkeling was astounding. This giant jack almost let me touch it. That’s one of the many giant clams (Tridacna) sitting in sand on the bottom, just underneath me. It was more than 24 inches across.
The water is gin-clear and the fish are friendly.
The variety of color and pattern in these giant clams is unbelievable.
On one coral formation about 40 feet in diameter, I counted only the Tridacna clams that were bigger than 18 inches across, and there were 41!
These clams are being raised in a local marine research center and reintroduced to reefs where they once grew. Hooray!
But be careful. The image of anyone getting a hand or foot caught in one of the huge, meter-wide Tridacnas is sobering when you see how fast they can snap shut and resist all efforts to pry them open. These are just a few of the color schemes that Tridacnas come in. There wasn’t anyone to ask about this, but the colors probably come from different types of algae that Tridacnas allow to grow in their tissues, similar to the zooxantellae used by corals. But how come a brown and green Tridacna will be next to a pink and black one and a blue one?
All in all, a fabulous day.
Soon it was time for Orcinius and Charisma to head off to Rarotonga. High tide was at 3 PM, and the getting underway operation was choreographed with military precision. Then Charisma got stuck right at the start, and plans pretty much fell apart.
The Mother of All Groundings: This is a photo of Charisma aground on the way into the channel; the Orcinius crew is trying to heel her over by hanging onto the main boom. It worked, and she made it into harbor. Getting back out, however, was a seahorse of a different color. We were too busy to take photos of her misadventure; besides, you might not believe it anyway.
Try to picture a large group of sailors hanging like orangutans off the rigging to heel her over in far less water than this, with one crazed orangutan flooring it at the helm and two crazed orangutans being dragged astern on the main halyard, and you’ll get the idea. You can also check the blogs of Orcinius and Charisma.
Okay, here’s what happened. It took about 30-40 minutes to get Charisma out from her berth in the inner harbor because high tide was not as high as advertised that day, and she was sitting on the bottom. There was a strong east wind blowing, which we surmise may have lowered the water in the lagoon, plus the moon was no longer full. Charisma used her engine and the twin engines of Orcinius, to which she was tied, to worm her way through mud into deeper water. We had re-anchored our own boat nearby, with a line to a tree ashore, but keeping the two big boats separated from the old Sockdolager as they slid sideways through the mud was a full-time job. A pair of vacationing Aussies named Mike and Jo were very helpful from shore, as we pulled Sockdolager nearly into her own grounding. But she did fine, and Orcinius dragged Charisma into deeper water, where they separated, with Orcinius leading the way out.
The clock was ticking… the tide would turn very soon… and you know the old saw about time and tide.
The plan was to have Jim and me in our dinghy between the two bigger boats, ready to run a tow line from Orcinius in case Charisma went aground. About a third of the way out the channel, Charisma came to an abrupt halt on a shoal. But then, several boat lengths ahead, so did Orcinius. Uh-oh.
We dinghied over to Orcinius, where John said, “We draw 4.5 feet, and both hulls are aground. High tide’s in 20 minutes.” Lisa gunned the cat’s two engines alternately to “walk” the boat off the grounding area, and it worked. But they radioed us saying they would not be able to tow Charisma, and headed out the channel to wait in deeper water. Double uh-oh.
I went aboard Charisma and Jim hung off the end of her main boom, trying to heel her over while Bob gunned the engine. We stayed hard aground. Then Jim dinghied out the long channel to pick up John. Lisa stayed aboard Orcinius, since they didn’t anchor (that area is notorious for losing anchors in coral.) Meanwhile, back on Charisma, Bob and Anne stood on the bow while I (who weighed the least in a situation where every pound of weight counted) stayed at the helm trying to “walk” the boat forward with the engine and small turns of the wheel. With the way we were stuck and just the one engine, it was impossible. Bob had the boom way out to the side, and he stood on it, but it didn’t heel us over enough. Jim was still enroute to fetch John. Tick-tock, tick-tock.
It's coincidental that Lisa on Orcinius has the last name of, we kid you not, Danger. She was a Captain in the Air Force (imagine the teasing), and her husband John (LeDoux) was a Major. He told us the reason she retired as a Captain was so she wouldn’t have to answer to “Major Danger.” We absolutely love being able to say, “We’ve met Captain Danger!” Okay, back to the drama, which will, mark my words, be made into a movie one day to rival the suspense of The Guns of Navarone.
Aboard Charisma, Bob, Ann and I tried unfurling the genoa and gunning the engine, but we were stuck very firmly. I noticed the tide had turned and was vigorously ebbing. Triple uh-oh.
Soon another couple, Mo and Margaret from the Aussie-bound ketch Wadda, arrived, and Mo hung like an orangutan off the far end of the boom. Jim had just arrived with John from Orcinius, and they took Charisma’s main halyard way out on the port side, to rig it up to heel us further over, but it still wasn’t enough. “Bob,” I called, “The rudder’s not responding now. Tide’s dropping, we can’t wait much longer.” Fourple uh-oh.
Bob told me to keep trying, with 2500 rpms on the engine and, when they all got back into position so that the boat heeled enough to answer the helm, more worm-turns on the rudder. Bob’s a big guy, and he inched further out on the boom. Suddenly, a bump. “We’re moving!” someone shouted, but then we stopped. I eased the rpms down to idle, thinking we’re done, Charisma’s here for the night. So many uh-ohs I’ve lost count.
Now John and Jim, about 75 feet off to port, had the main halyard and a long extension line rigged, but with no purchase on the bottom it didn’t heel us over far enough. Then John had an idea, and it was jaw-droppingly brilliant. Standing in chest-deep water, he used a dinghy anchor attached to a loop from the dinghy painter to get purchase on the bottom, ran the main halyard through the loop, stood on the dinghy anchor to secure it temporarily, and passed the end of the halyard to Jim, who swam, also in chest-high water, back toward the boat, cinched the halyard tight, and began climbing hand-over-hand up the halyard, like… an orangutan. The boat was now heeled over so much that Mo, at the far end of the main boom, was half in the water and there were perhaps 5 or 6 inches of freeboard left on the port side of this Tayana 37.
Big bump. WE’RE MOVING! “Keep going!” shouted Bob. “Roger!” I shouted back. More bumps. “Get her over to starboard!” shouted Bob. “Roger!” said I. Right toward the channel’s edge, but there was nothing else we could do, surrounded by even shallower water. Heeled way over, we bumped and dragged the keel sideways across the shoal, suddenly straightening a little and picking up speed, now to 5 knots. “KEEEEP GOIIIIING!” roared Bob. “Rogerrrr!” roared I.
Then voices from astern alarmed us—John’s and Jim’s—we looked back to see John being dragged through the water, with the dinghy still attached to the halyard by its anchor, and him hanging on. Jim had fallen off his perch on the halyard after John lost his grip on the dinghy anchor when Charisma started moving fast. John shouted at Jim, “You’d better get over here or you’re going to get left behind!” Jim swam as hard as he could (no mean feat wearing crocs) but just as he reached for the dinghy, it took off like a shot, leaving Jim standing there in chest-deep water watching his friends leave him marooned (alone and forlorn, he later claimed) as they sailed for safety.
But safety was not yet to be…
Charisma hurtled toward toward the next shoal, the same one Orcinius had hit, which we knew would be 4.5 feet deep. Remember, Charisma draws almost six feet. We were the utter embodiment of another old saw: RAMMING SPEED!
“Should I slow down?” I shouted at John astern, fearing he was in trouble, but he recovered himself into a more secure position and yelled at us to keep going. He was still hanging onto the halyard, and actually managed to put on his dive mask and watch the bottom as we crashed over it. The guy had such aplomb I swear he would’ve filmed it if he’d had a camera. After checking to see that John was okay, Bob yelled keep going, so I did.
We hit that piece of shoal ground going 5 knots, Ba-BOOM! We hit hard, bounced, and Charisma heeled over right to the rail, which may have been awash. Shouts of keep going, shudders through the whole boat like you never, ever want to feel, and me at the helm thinking this could kill a lesser boat, and oh my god it’s like driving a tractor across a rocky farm field, and everyone’s hanging on for dear life because getting knocked off would have been so easy at that point when you’re sliding sideways over hard sandy coral. I glanced at wide-eyed Mo, who by now had grown suction cups on his fingers out there in boomland, and Margaret, who was holding on from their dinghy, for dear life. Bob was standing on the boom clinging to the main shrouds, which were now tilting over the water.
The land-based part of this journey seemed to take forever, but soon we were in deeper water. Everyone’s adrenalin was stoked to the max. We slowed down. John called, “What do you want me to do with the dinghy?” and I yelled “GO GET JIM!” so while Mo and Margaret in their dinghy, and John in our dinghy, separated from Charisma, Bob took the helm, I climbed onto the now-straight main boom to better see the channel, and we safely got to deeper water where Orcinius was waiting.
Both skippers donned snorkel gear and dived under their boats. Orcinius had no damage, and Charisma had only a deep scratch in the keel, in a place where its fiberglass was extra thick. Both boats had no bottom paint left where they’d struck the putty. John asked Jim if he had enough gas to get the dinghy back through the channel, which has a roaring current; Jim didn’t, so John fueled him up. Jim picked me up off Charisma, and we started back, the dinghy barely making headway in the building ebb.
After stowing for sea, both boats raised sail for Rarotonga, where they arrived safely a day and a half later. Jim and I went ashore and joined our amazed new Aussie friends Mike and Jo for an enhanced retelling at the local pub. Karen was slightly hung over next day.
There are two morals to this story.
1) Time and tide wait for no orangutan;
2) The tide you had going in isn’t guaranteed to be the tide you get going out; and
3) Boats drawing more than 5 feet might want to wait a couple years before visiting Aitutake, when the channel has been dredged to 15 feet (as is currently planned.)
Jim and I rented a motor scooter, and toured Aitutaki for a more sedate form of entertainment. We went everywhere! This included a steep gravelly hill, for which I got off and walked. Below is a photo of Queasy Rider at the moment of wipeout. Aside from a minor scrape on the elbow, there was no other damage, to bike or biker.
An unusual feature of Aitutaki life is the fact that in most front yards there is at least one grave. It’s customary to be buried on one’s own land, and land ownership is passed down through families, never really sold; so it’s not unusual to see kids playing on and around the graves, or even picnic tables set up on them. I doubt this will catch on anytime soon in US real estate markets, though.
There’s a vaka (huge Polynesian double-hulled canoe) hauled out at the inner harbor, undergoing restoration. Jim has been volunteering on it, doing various carpentry and epoxying jobs, and we have learned about its illustrious history. This is the mother of all seven vakas whom we first met in San Francisco, the fleet from across Oceania that’s making a Pacific circuit to raise awareness of the plight of the ocean (particularly the plastic pollution.) All of their lines were taken from this original wooden vaka, which will one day be sailing again, training young Cook Islanders in seafaring and cultural history. How cool is that. We also learned that this vaka and its crew were arrested in a protest out at Mururoa atoll, over the nuclear testing, which was still going on at the time.
An Aitutake blue star communing with the baby Tridacnas.
And, for our wooden boat friends, we finally found... drumroll please... a genuine holystone! The hole, through a piece of coral, was made by some kind of tubeworm.