The Not So Big Escape

We just made it successfully out of the hole and have finally escaped the comfort zone, when hell breaks lose. It sounds like the firing of one of those black powder shotguns red cheeked history buffs and stubborn sufferers of war nostalgia bring back to life during the cheerful get together they at the local shooting range with their buddies. It happened literally out of the blue, totally unexpected and that long eternally suspended instant of disbelief took hold of us. The day had definitely started on a high note, no hint whatsoever that Aluna would soon be crippled like the innocent duck those black powder shotguns might sometimes be aimed at viciously. Again we had risen at dawn and silently downed our customary breakfast, observing the clouds travelling overhead from the rolling hills in the East towards the soaring cliffs in the West. Still colorful from the rising sun they did not look as hasty as just a couple days ago, when the peaceful bay has started to move with a swell. That was a good sign. Once the dishes were licked and washed we set to work raising the sails. The new masthead for the mainsail worked beautifully, the sail bundle went up in the air with a couple hearty pulls on the halyard. The anchor took a bit of pulling and tugging before breaking loose. After all we had yet again spent an entire month hanging on it and the powerful gusts of the previous week had done their part to make sure that the hook was tightly embedded in the mud. Once the anchor was free and sitting on its roller the mainsail was un-brailed, but it did not open. This one little snag was the only pointer to the series of misfortunes and scares the remaining part of the day had in store for us. The end of the yard had dug into the sail up at the crescent seam, punched a hole in the tarp and no tugging and wiggling would shake it lose. Down the anchor went again and down the main sail came again. Damage undone, both those vital parts of our ship were reinstalled in their functional positions and now we were moving, slowly moving towards a rather challenging maneuver.

The outlet of Hakatea Bay faces Southeast and is no more than five hundred meters wide, delimited on the Northeast by a rocky protrusion and in the Southwest by the four hundred meters high cliffs we had marveled at for their wild scenic beauty. The wind and waves are funneled in there from the open ocean and when coming around the finger of rocks on the port side your facing the beasts breathing with fury and spitting hard straight in your face. As most of you know we’re not very fond of using motors and in that choppy sea I doubt they would have been of much use. So under sail we hugged the wind as close as Aluna could, but the angle was nowhere near enough to pass the cliffs. They were coming closer and closer and eventually it was time to tack. There are times when a tack fails you, the boat does not make it through the eye of the wind, falls back and continues after a long swing away from the wind in the same direction. This would have been a major disaster in our situation, so I made sure that Aluna rode at maximum speed when I turned the wheel to weather on the tip of a wave crests. Aluna tacked flawlessly and was now heading towards the heavy breakers thundering and foaming over the black rocks to the East. The second tack was just as perfect as the first one and now a couple back sights, where you line up features in the foreground with others in the background and check their movement relative to each other, confirmed that we should make it around Point Temokomoko at the end of the cliff wall. This maneuver had been on my mind for some time. When we finally did turn the corner and left behind yet another dinosaur staring down into the ocean before his stony eyes, I could not help but let go a deep and long sigh of relief.

Now we’re both humming Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy!, tapping the offset beat of the catchy song on the forward lip of the cockpit cover. The main sail is full, Aluna’s doing the surfing thing again. Point Motumano, the southernmost tip of Nuku Hiva is now on our starboard beam. Behind it I perceive some whirls of spray dancing wildly on an otherwise calmer sea, flashing a translucent sheen of rainbow colors in the morning light. It takes me too long to realize that these are violent gusts lashing down onto the sea from the sloping land. The shotgun sound rings into my consciousness before that realization takes root enough to bring about any kind of evasive action.

The boom of the main sail cracks right below where the lower bridle of the sheets attaches and folds forward over the aft shroud of the mast. The white tarp sail collapses and shreds into many pieces. The biggest one of them folds around the masthead and the still proudly standing yard, draping them like a ghostly figure fit for the kinkiest of Halloween. The white shreds flutter wildly under the lashings of many more and increasingly violent gusts. The brailing lines design a pyramid shape into the deep blue sky, having wrapped themselves all the way around the four orange shrouds. It’s a sad sight up there; our big main sail has ceased to exist in a single instant of destruction.

The long instant of disbelief eventually fades away and Beatriz shouts from the wheel: “What do I do? What do I do?” In spite of having been robbed of three fourth of her sail surface, Aluna is still racing over the waves. On a downwind run any cloth up in the air pushes you along. The mizzen sail is enough to have Aluna continue on, we round Point Motumano and turn to starboard towards Mataeteiko Point. “Continue to steer towards the point,” is my dry reply, while I contemplate myself that question. I have some time for that. Aluna continues to get lashed by the whirlwind gusts, but they ebb eventually and give me the opportunity to step on the foredeck and start the deconstruction of the mess. It takes quite some pulling and tugging to bring the wreckage down on deck and wrap it up in a bundle. Once that is done the smaller mainsail goes up and we have a functional rig again, just in time to round Matateteiko Point.

Baie Marquisienne, our supposed destination for an over night stay is one mile further up the coast. But the bay turns out to be very exposed, the wind is blowing hard down the valley and onto the water. The beach is grey gravel, not sand like it looked on the satellite picture. Anchoring over a gravel bottom is no mariner’s favorite holding ground. On top of it all the winds are fluky once we’re inside. On one of the many tacks trying to get in the Bay Aluna stubbornly resists turning into the wind. Bearing off brings us dangerously close to the Southern shore. Its rocks viscously lick their jagged teeth, ready to bite into Aluna’s soft belly if we get a yard or two closer.

Maps are so rudimentary here in French Polynesia. Our paper chart of Nuku Hiva is from a French survey of 1881! I’ve been complementing this museum piece with satellite images from Google Earth when we had access to the Internet. Comparing those with what we’re seeing we’re not even sure we actually are where we think we are. At any rate we do not want to stay here and decide to continue up the coast were we make our way past a kaleidoscope of earth tone bluffs, some set back, some jotting out into the sea a bit. Behind one of the latter ones soon appears another bay, again most of the beach is grey gravel, but at the Northern end seems to be some brown sand. It’s interesting enough to sail in and go examine a little closer.

By now we’re far enough up the coast to have very variable winds. Having set the sails close hauled we can ride most of them without having to fiddle with the sheets. But I seem to have turned the corner around the headland a little too tight and Aluna is all of a sudden being pulled closer and closer towards it. Again she is locked in one direction and no pulling on sheets or sails seems to want to help making her turn. The wind has completely dropped. Aluna’s bows are pointing towards the foaming rock underneath a wall of black menacing lava rock and slowly, like pulled by a devilish force we’re heading for the rocks! I panic, try desperately to get the engines started, which of course they don’t want to do. I run forward to move the main sail, to see if one of the puffs of air might turn our ship away from disaster. It’s eerily still; the only sound is the foaming water crashing over the rocks right in front of our nose. I’m at the end of my vocabulary of swear words, looking for poles to push us off the rocks should it come to that, knowing quite well that our by now fully loaded vessel is a little bit too heavy to work in the ways of the Venetian gondolas. Time is just about to stand still before the imminent destruction of our home! Then, as if sent straight from heaven above, a strong puff of wind comes rolling down the black rock face, fills Aluna’s trembling sails and turns her bows slowly but decidedly North, away from the white foaming danger and towards a big sigh of relief.

That last brush with disaster was too much for Beatriz. She collapses in tears and many “why didn’t you” and “I told you so!”. I’m also a little shaken, aware that the scene we’ve just lived will echo and replay in my consciousness for days to come. There’s one more bay up the coast, before it turns Eastward again lashed by the feisty trade winds. Haahopu Bay has a small concrete pier and from out at sea does not look too promising. By now we’re close hauled and unable to hug the coast any longer.  The trade winds are wrapping around the Northwest corner of the island and are coming at us almost from the Northeast. We’re maybe one and a half mile from the coast and a bright red excavator is clearly visible on the pier. To me it seems like the sea in the bay is smooth, there’s a little white foamy wash going up and down the ochre sand beach behind it but apart from that it looks definitely peaceful in there. Of course after our little brush with disaster I am weary to have rocks close to our hulls again, but when I consider the alternative at hand, which would be to sail into the wind, probably through the night and in the morning pull into the first protected bay on Nuku Hiva’s Northern coast, enough courage builds up in me to go and have a look. We stay on the starboard tack until the little red toy machine is about two points behind the beam, enough to make it there comfortably on the opposite tack. Aluna’s bows turn smoothly through the eye of the wind and approaching the coast again the details of our potential resting place for the next couple days slowly begin to reveal themselves. There’s a rocky outcrop jotting out into the sea just to the North of the entrance and in front of it the waves break into shiny white rollers. Friends who have explored this part of the coast the previous week have warned us about a group of submerged rocks there. Apparently a local speedboat had been lost when its owner hugged the coast too tightly and his vessel exploded on impact with the hidden danger. We’re giving them a wide berth and enter the bay. The wind subsides almost immediately and becomes the typical a little bit from here and a little bit from there of the local bays. The little jetty has a thick concrete wall on its seaward side and a pile of rocks completes the breakwater until it merges with the beach at the end of the bay. The bottom looks clean, according to our guidebooks it should be sand, the best when it comes to safely making anchors hold steady. Down goes the chain and a bit of the rode before I feel the anchor hitting the ground, telling me that we are in about five meters of water.

The little bay turns out to be a little oasis of calm in the hissing winds all the way around it. It lies at the outlet of a gently curved valley that had been carved into the lava shield by water rushing down from Nuku Hiva’s mighty mountains, the 3,500 meter high eroded flanks of the ancient crater, which at this time are hidden under a dark grey coat of clouds. That dark grey soon starts to acquire hues of yellow and red and while looking out towards the horizon over the sea little peaks wander towards the setting sun. The little ripples that make it into the bay rock Aluna ever so gently and we are certain that after this day of quite some excitement we will be sleeping like pink-cheeked angels resting their holly buts on puffy cotton clouds. But first there’s a need for a little something going into the digestive tract and I make sure to drink an extra glass of tea, so that during the night a filled bladder will be knocking on the doors of the peacefully sleeping mind, pushing the body out of bed just long enough to fill the bottle and stick the head out of the hatch to have a look around in the moonless night. Hoping that the hook will hold through the night was all that was needed this time. It did.

One Response to “The Not So Big Escape”

  1. Column Blog Says:

    Large European Beech Carved Pyramid…

    […] e alternative at hand, which would be to sail into the wind, probably through th […]…

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