We are anchored in an inlet on Waya, one of the Yasawa islands west of Fiji, on my 48ft sloop Sangvind. My wife, Sylvia, my friend Jeroen and I have enjoyed a few drinks in the cockpit on this starry South Pacific night, playing guitar and singing songs.
Just before going to bed, Sylvia wonders whether the wind might turn onshore later. “Don’t even say that!” I exclaim. We are just about to go to bed, and the boat is in complete disarray, with stuff lying loose everywhere in full anchorage mode. With four teenage boys aboard, this is the last thing I want to hear. Unfortunately, Sylvia’s sailor’s intuition, honed over 20 years of fulltime cruising, proves faultless, and not an hour later I’m waking her up. “Come on, Sylvia, I need you now. We need to go in a hurry. This is happening!”
Outside, the stars are gone, and the wind is not only blowing straight onshore, but getting stronger every second. I feel raindrops, always a bad sign, as the bow begins rising and falling with the swell. The wind and seas are pressing us into the bay, and there is a reef right behind us. We have been in this kind of situation before, and I am not going to let things develop any further. I know what we have to do—leave now, while we still can.
It is a coal-black night. The deck lights are on, but all I can see is the bow pitching up and down. The wind is strengthening, blowing wet in my face. Down below, everyone is frantically stowing gear, prepping for a stormy sail. Fortunately, I’d rebuilt the anchor windlass only a few days before, and the hook is now coming up like a charm.
Still, nervous, I second-guess myself. “Is this really the right thing to do?” Leaving an unfamiliar anchorage at night in zero visibility, surrounded by reefs with no lighthouse, no lit navigation aids and no shore lights to help orient yourself is not for the faint of heart. On the plus side, we have GPS on a laptop showing us exactly where we are, both on Google Earth and our electronic charts. With that to guide us, we should be safe. Or so I think.
“It’s not working!” Dylan, our 13-year-old son, suddenly yells. “The GPS is putting us on land!”
We are now literally in the dark. Slowly, I motor straight into the wind, giving Dylan time to get the charting program going.
“Sylvia, turn on the old GPS and start plotting,” I shout down, and she effortlessly falls into our old, well-practiced routine: plotting our positions on the chart with a parallel ruler every 10 minutes, converting true courses into compass courses for me to steer by. We are now heading due south into 20 knots of wind, engine slow ahead at 1,200 rpm, making 2 knots, buying time to get courses, position and waypoints in place. I am trying to stay cool, to not let the stress impair my efficiency.
“It’s not working! The computer GPS still isn’t working!” Dylan shouts.
“Mom is going old-school, Dylan, don’t worry,” I say, as Sylvia also quietly asks Dylan to only let us know when the GPS is working, not when it isn’t. We are a team now, this is going well, I think to myself, hoping as I do so that the engine doesn’t decide to quit too. Even then, though, I reassure myself we know how to sail out of trouble as well. It’s something we’ve done before, more than once, in fact.
“Three degrees west, Frans,” Sylvia says, and I press three the “+1” button on the autopilot three times—beep, beep, beep. All is under control. The engine is now working harder than ever at 2,000 rpm, and our speed is up to 3.2 knots as we pound into the waves, slow, but steady. The wind is 25-plus knots, still increasing. “The GPS is working!” Dylan pipes up. “We have a position!” It’s news that comes as a great relief, even though we had it covered!
An hour later we are motoring between a pair of reefs, less than a mile apart. We can’t see them, and Jeroen, my mate from Holland, and his son Niek are on the foredeck, peering into the darkness, listening for the sound of waves breaking on coral. Nothing so far. Good!
Rounding the south side of Waya, we unroll half the working jib. “Keep it mellow!” I tell myself, as we fall off onto a beam reach a short while later and let out yet more sail. The engine can go off now, and I tell it, “You rest!” as Sylvia goes to bed. Jeroen and Niek also turn in, leaving me alone in the darkness, monitoring the GPS, one eye on the depthsounder, adjusting course to keep us midway between the reefs. “Trust the electronics,” I tell myself. “There is nothing else you can do. Trust…”
Four hours later, at 0430, we finally anchor off the north side of Waya in the pitch dark, amid yet more reefs—scary. The depth is close to 50ft, and the wind is gusting hard off the hills, but we have plenty of rode out, and the holding is excellent.
“That went well,” I think to myself as I turn in to get some sleep with two hours to go till sunrise. All too soon, though, I wake up to find the wind has clocked and is now blowing straight into the anchorage—again.
DEALING WITH MIDNIGHT SCARES
• When you anchor overnight, anywhere, always plan for the worst-case scenario.
• Mark your (GPS or triangulated) position on the chart and write down the coordinates in the logbook.
• Prepare your exit strategy in advance. Log the compass courses, distances and travel times at slow speed to help you steer out of the anchorage safely.
• Have your headlamps charged and easy to locate.
• Make sure all loose ropes, like excess anchor, rode on the foredeck or the dinghy painter, are secure and won’t fall overboard, possibly fouling the prop.
• At a minimum, get items like loose dishes, cooking oil and computers stowed properly before going to bed. There is nothing worse than slipping on cooking oil on the floor or stepping on broken glass when you are trying to save the ship.
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