“Seven, six, five, four…we’re aground!” Neil shouts from the helm, as he counts down in feet the rapidly diminishing water beneath our keel.
Fortunately, the grounding was but a gentle kiss from a sandy seabank. Steadily we scooted off the shelf and back into deeper water, where we’d been trying very unsuccessfully to identify a spot to anchor between coral pinnacles (aka “bommies”) that threatened to scratch the surface of the water.
A week into our stay at Raivavae, Mike and Gill from s/v Romano joined us for an excursion to the east side of Raivavae in search of Motu Piscine (“swimming pool island”), which we’d heard about from the Gendarme in Rairu. The waters on the southeast side of the island are uncharted, which made us wary, but the skies were blue and conditions were forecast to remain settled. We decided to tootle around the island and give the adventure a shot.Since the Red Thread is the shallower drafted of our vessels, we invited Mike and Gill aboard for their first ever slumber party. Unfortunately, the festivities were getting started with a dirty game of “Dodge the Bommie.” We were thankful for the extra pairs of eyes. Our friends had experience navigating coral-strewn waters from their time in the Caribbean; for Neil and I, this was a novel and downright terrifying process!
After our soft grounding, we inched away from the outer motus and back toward the main island, hoping we’d find fewer coral heads to navigate. Things got worse before they got better.We had departed the anchorage in Rairu with the midday sunshine—critical to discerning water depths and spotting bommies—high overhead. As bommies grew thicker, our nerves stretched thinner and dense clouds rolled in. It wasn’t long before the sun had been all but stolen by an enormous cloud that now loomed ominously over Mount Hiro’s peaks. We slowly poked our way along in the graying light, wishing the sun would burn through the thickening clouds. Although it was quite doable to spot heaps of rock or coral, it was all but almost impossible to discern their depth below the surface. Three anxious lookouts on the bow and cabintop squawked and pointed, while an overwhelmed helmsman did his best to decipher directions from the discord of voices. Mike and Gill saw a not-so-pretty side of Neil and I, as we snapped at each other, the stress of the conditions getting the best of our wits.
Eventually, we found what appeared to be a large sandy patch 15 to 20 feet below. We made a large circle with the boat to ensure we’d have ample swing room once we dropped our anchor. Things looked good; down went the hook. The anchor set, we took a few deep breaths and kicked back in the cockpit to enjoy a fiery sunset over Raivavae.Just after the last vestiges of light faded from the sky, our depth alarm sounded (i.e., alarm to notify us if the water depth below the boat dips below a specified limit). We silenced the alarm, grabbed our high-beam spotlight, and started shining it into the now black water.
Just below the surface, off Red Thread’s starboard beam, was a bommie. The yellowy color reflecting in the water signified it was near the surface and was the culprit that had set off our depth alarm! Winds had shifted unexpectedly and picked up to 15+ knots, pulling our anchor chain taut and pirouetting us over the bommie. Judging by the shape below the surface, most of the bommie was quite deep, but it had a formidable spire. We’d failed to see it when we’d circled the area before we dropped the anchor.
The situation was scary. We could not move the boat to a different spot, as we knew it would be impossible to identify a safer place in darkness, but at the same time, we had to do something. BOMP! We felt the keel scrape the bommie’s pinnacle. We had to do something now!
Neil and Mike loaded our 15-pound Danforth anchor into the dinghy and rowed to drop the second anchor, positioning it such that approximately 60° were between the two anchors in a forked mooring configuration. Meanwhile, Gill and I paid out 3-strand rode for the second anchor and took up a bit of our primary anchor chain. The combination of two anchors kept us suspended some 20 feet away from the bommie through the night, but did little to ease our nerves.
From our bed in the v-berth, I laid awake watching the forestay pass to-and-fro across the three-quarter moon through the hatch, while listening to the wind whistle through the rigging and the snubber line creak along the toe rail each time the wind gusted. Neil got up several times in the night to check the tension on the anchor lines and to spotlight the whereabouts of the bommie. So much for a fun night.
Neil dove the boat at daylight and found an 8-inch scratch along the bottom of our keel, a superficial wound, but a wound to our home no less. The islands in the South Pacific are peppered with coral heads, and I’d venture to bet that virtually all boats who traverse this part of the world find themselves uncomfortably close to a bommie on one or more occasions. The scuff will serve as a reminder that the beautiful underwater structures that sustain ecosystems of fish and reef creatures can also inflict serious wounds on a boat.
Regretfully, we never visited Motu Piscine, nor did we snorkel the nearby bommies, which I am convinced may have rivaled the best snorkeling we did anywhere in the South Pacific. But we were completely beat after a night of poor sleep. We were also afraid that the blue skies of morning might turn gray like they did the day prior and prevent us from safely navigating the bommies en route back to the main [charted] channel. We weighed our anchors and retraced our path along the track Neil had laid down on our chartplotter on our way in. Still amid the bommie minefield, the winds escalated into the 20s, the sky turned black, and a squall drenched us all.Soggy and chilled, we put on a pot of tea and motored back toward Rairu. Needless to say, we were very happy when we reached the safe anchorage 90 minutes later. We suspect the fiasco may very well be Mike and Gill’s first and last sleepover.