Tuesday, July 08, 2008

July 7, 2008 - Darwin Dash, Day 10

[Over the past 24 hours we've been debating whether we should post the account below on our blog. Primarily, we are concerned that it is going to freak out our family and friends. Also, if our insurance company gets wind of it, they'll probably raise our rates. And frankly, as the negligent party, I find it embarrassing. But as I said to our friend Brian after he and his partner ran aground in Bora Bora, "I love it when other people make mistakes. That way, I can learn from them without risking my own boat." (admittedly, this was not one of my most tackfull moments). So in the hope that someone out there learns something from our mistakes, here goes.]

We left our anchorage behind the Great Detached Reef at daybreak. With the wind behind us and the current with us, we ran north-west all day through murky, shallow waters. Occasionally we had to gybe Mata'irea around a sandy, barren cay or a particularly shallow shoal, but for the most part, the sea around us looked as empty as the open ocean. However, the chart showed hazards all around us. The cloudy water and lack of visual clues to the shallowness and unevenness of the sea floor under our keel was unnerving.

By late afternoon the sunny day had become overcast. We were sailing along at 8 knots, wing-on-wing, with the jib poled out to port and the main to starboard, pushing to get into an anchorage behind a reef before sunset. Rather than follow the GPS waypoints in our cruising guide, which would have taken us over the northern edge of this circular reef (shaped a bit like a flat-topped mesa rising out of the sea floor), we decided to cut the corner, saving time so that we would have better light in which to anchor. At the time, changing our course to be able to anchor in good light seemed like the safety-conscious choice.

Our charts had been spot on all day. I was watching our track on the chart plotter and the angle of the wind on the wind instruments, trying to keep us a safe distance from the reef, which required me to keep turning us to port a few degrees, without backwinding the poled-out jib. According to the chart, we were about a third of a mile from the edge of the reef. Then, while still looking at the plotter, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a dark spot on the water. I focused on it, and immediately realized it was a rock on top of the reef, and it was about 50 feet from us. From that moment, I operated on pure instinct. I'm not trying to make myself sound like an action figure here, it is just that I didn't think through the steps necessary to get us away from danger.

"Sten, I need your help." I shouted as I reeled away from the chart plotter, threw myself across the cockpit to jam the autopilot into standby, and grabbed the wheel, spinning Mata'irea hard to port.

Assuming that I was having a problem keeping the jib from backwinding, Sten looked up from the fish he was cleaning to glance at the sails and called out, "Turn the other way."

"I can't." I simply said as I steered us away from the reef, a boat length away.

A minute (that felt like an hour) later, once we were a safe distance from the reef, I let out my breath in a big whoosh. It was only then that I realized that I had been holding it. It wasn't until I was certain that we weren't about to lose our boat, and our home, that I could breathe again.

This is the chart for the area. The green area is where I expected the reef to be, approximately a third of a mile away. Instead, it was a whole lot closer than as charted. The red line shows the sharp turn I took to avoid the reef.

So how come I didn't see the reef until it was almost too late? We had been in 85 feet of water, but the reef rose straight up from the depths, like a sheer cliff face. We were protected by other reefs to windward, so there was minimal swell breaking on it to alert me to its proximity. If it hadn't been low tide, exposing rocks on top of the reef, we would have lost our boat today. I don't even want to think about what would have happened upon impact to Sten, who was filleting a fish with a razor sharp knife at the moment I saw the reef.

Here are the lessons we learned from this experience:

Don't become too focused on charts, instruments and sails. I was so intent on monitoring our course on the chart plotter and keeping the sails filled that I wasn't looking around us. Even though we'd hardly seen anything above water all day, I still should have been looking around for visual clues to confirm that the reef we were closing in on was as far away as the charts showed it to be. I should have also been scanning for any uncharted hazards.

Leave early and sail fast. Shortly after leaving the Great Detached Reef, an hour later than we intended, we calculated our estimated time of arrival at our intended anchorage and figured that we were going fast enough with just the main up. It wasn't until the day started to get cloudy and the wind lessened slightly, that we polled out the jib to keep our speed up. We'd been doing 7.5 to 8 knots all day, but we were slow to react when the wind moderated. There was about an hour or two when could have been going faster. The faster you go on a day sail, the closer you'll be to your destination if and when the conditions change.

In tight conditions, don't carry a sail combination that makes it hard to maneuver. There is only a relatively narrow wind angle in which wing-on-wing works. Steer beyond those angles, and you backwind the jib or jibe the main. In close quarters, the more maneuverable you are, the safer you are, even if it means being under-canvassed and therefore slower.

In areas that call for eye-ball navigation, both people on board should be focused on navigating; four eyes are better than two. Now, I had the watch. I knew Sten was focused on cleaning a fish and that I was responsible for getting us safely to the anchorage. I'm not trying to put any of the responsibility for this nearest of misses on him. I fully accept the responsibility for almost destroying our home. But we've decided that in the future, there will be no fish cleaning or other distractions in close quarters when an additional set of eyes could be of assistance.

Deep water isn't dangerous; shallow water is. We understand that for coastal cruisers and folks who have never been offshore, the deep ocean seems fraught with danger. But frankly, on a solid cruising boat, the dangers of the deep are few and far between. In our experience, the closer we are to shore, the more likely we are to find trouble.

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