In 1998, then-owner of Deerfoot 2-62 Moonshadow George Backhus wrote in this account of slamming into a Tuamotan reef. The following text is from that experience:
The Worst of the Worst
The following account is from Cort’s journal of the trip, written by him in the first person. I have added a few things to fill in some blanks. Thanks Cort, I was in no mood to write at this point.
Friday, May 24
Takaroa, Tuamotus, a.k.a. “The Dangerous Islands.”
Awoke this morning to wind. Are the trades finally back? Our plan was to weigh anchor at 0830 local time as the tide table for the area showed low slack water at that time. WRONG! The tide was still at a slight ebb at 1115, but with the skill of our skipper, we made it out through the pass to the open sea. The winds were fresh and easterly at about 12-15 knots. We were able to sail a direct course to Manihi, our next port of call recommended by friends and in various publications as a great place to dive, with a safe anchorage and an easy pass to navigate through.
I had calculated our ETA (estimated time of arrival) to be about 1600 based upon an 0900 departure, leaving us plenty of daylight to find an anchorage. However, with our late departure, it looked like it would be very close for us to make it through the pass by nightfall.
The day proceeded uneventfully, with a smooth broad reach flying a full main and the 2.2 ounce spinnaker, laying the mark.
As afternoon approached, it became increasingly evident that we would not reach port until after dark. Our choices were to heave to offshore for the night, or continue past Manihi and Ahe and on to Rangiroa Atoll, about 12 hours ahead, which would get us there at daybreak Saturday.
The consensus was that as long as we had to be on watch all night, we may as well press on to Rangiroa, as it had been touted as the best of the Tuamotus. It is the second largest atoll in the world, with great diving, lagoons, beaches, some restaurants and small hotels. We figured that if we grew tired of it we could proceed to the Society Islands (Tahiti & Bora Bora) and spend some time in Moorea before sailing to Papeete, the largest city in Tahiti.
I plotted a new course to Rangiroa, setting a way point giving us approximately 2 miles of sea room southwest of the island of Ahe. From there it was a clear shot to Rangiroa, with no charted obstructions within 28 miles of our course.
It was dark now and I felt uneasy about being close to islands and reefs so I checked and rechecked our progress by Ahe and requested to turn on the radar for a positive ID and to watch the squall activity which was becoming more prevalent.
We had dinner as we passed southeast of Ahe and could see some lights from the village in the distance.
We passed the way point and set our new course of 243 degrees to Rangiroa. My watch was to be from 0400-0600 so after doing the dishes, it was time to turn in. George was really tired and had the 0200-0400 watch and had already gone below. I did a last plot of our course before bed and told Eric, who was the first evening watch, not to sail below 210 degrees for any length of time as there was an island to the south that could be a problem. Albeit way south of our course, he acknowledged and I hit the sack. Shortly after falling asleep, through my earplugs I heard Eric call for George (Eric was having trouble steering in the shifty squally winds and George went up to help out). I could hear their voices and waited for them to call me, but figured they probably wanted me to rest and possibly come on watch an hour early at 0300 to help Fred with his watch.
Saturday, April 25
I did not sleep well at all. It was hot and humid and the hatches had been dogged due to the squalls and my fan was on the blink.
At 0205, Eric came to my room and said they needed me up early as it was very squally out.
I groggily got out of my bunk, put on my shorts (inside out) and made my way to the cockpit and said what’s up? George said that he didn’t want Fred on watch alone in these conditions and that they were about to gybe to starboard tack and needed my help as it was really squally with winds up to 35 knots and would I mind being on watch two hours early as he and Eric were dead tired. I said no problem and asked when we were going to gybe. George said in the next lull. I said that while we’re waiting, why don’t I check our current position and he said fine. I went below and found our position to be 15 degrees, 11 minutes south latitude and 146 degrees, 48 minutes west longitude. In my stupor, I erroneously plotted the 11 minutes of latitude to the north of 15 degrees instead the to the south as one does in the southern hemisphere. This incorrectly plotted position put us approximately six miles to the south of our rhumb line course to Rangiroa. This seemed reasonable to me in view of the fact that we had been having difficulty holding our course due to the winds clocking to the east and squalls driving us to the south.
I came back to the cockpit and George asked how we looked. I replied we looked a little south of course but no problem. I asked him what course we were steering and was told about 210 to 220 degrees and the course to the mark was 276 degrees. This didn’t make sense to me that we could be just slightly south of course with an angle like that. I was wanting to recheck our position when suddenly all hell broke loose. We hit something! At first I thought perhaps it was a whale or a container. The boat bucked and heeled. The sea was full of breaking waves and foam and we could hear surf pounding.
It was like a nightmare! We all exclaimed that we must have hit an uncharted reef as there are rumors of such in these islands. I put on my life vest and went below to send a Mayday. I wrote down our position. The boat was heeled over about 50 degrees and movement below was very difficult. I tried the sideband radio but it was inoperative. I tried the VHF and was able to reach Walkabout, the boat that we had assisted some days earlier. I quickly checked the chart along our route and could again find no charted reefs. Eric said he could see land to starboard close at hand through the night vision lens. The only island anywhere near our route was Arutua, some 28 miles south of our intended track and it should have been to our port side. Nothing made sense. The boat was in chaos, the waves and wind pushing her harder onto the reef. George and Eric deployed the EPIRB (distress signal transmitter), got the abandon ship bag ready and dropped the sails. I attempted to get an E-mail distress message off but was unsuccessful. George came below and was able to get an E-mail off to his mom (the NOAA would call her first when we set off a distress signal) to advise her that we were not in grave danger. I replotted our position (correctly this time) and found that we were indeed 28 miles off course and had struck a reef at the very north-northwest tip of the Arutua atoll.
I surmised we must have hit almost perpendicular and then the wind forced her to lay to starboard explaining how we were now 180 degrees away from our course heading and how the island was to starboard.
I continued to call Walkabout to give them our position and predicament. They offered to come to our aid, but George was hesitant because he did not want to endanger them.
Moonshadow was being pounded unmercifully against the reef and we could hear cracking and groaning against the strain. We were afraid we would lose her as the wind, waves and reef took their toll.
Meanwhile, Walkabout said she would come and stand by, that she was only five miles from us. Through the night vision we saw a light on the horizon to the north and assumed it to be Walkabout. We never saw or heard from them again (until we met them in Papeete.)
We proceeded to shut everything down and secure the boat as best we could, then waited for daybreak. The time passed very slowly but light finally came about 0500. With the aid of night vision we could make out a shore line about 30-40 yards in. I lowered myself gently to the reef and found a solid coral bottom about 2 feet deep. I slowly waded ashore to check it out. It was indeed terra firma with a crushed coral beach with scrub jungle followed further inland by coconut palms.
As the morning progressed we took valuables and personal effects ashore and set up “Camp Moonshadow.” The awning was our tent and shelter, suspended with driftwood and bushes. It was quite warm with lots of bugs and hermit crabs everywhere. Eric and I set out to look for signs of habitation or ships-Eric inland and me up the beach to the west to a point of land. Upon reaching the point, I observed a small bay to the southwest, but no ships or village. We attempted a Mayday call on the hand held VHF to no avail. On returning to camp I tried my aircraft radio, but 121.5 MHz was blocked by the EPIRB signal. At least we knew THAT was working. I tried a Mayday on 128.95 MHZ, the frequency guarded by high altitude jet on Pacific crossings, again to no avail.
I took a look at the chart and saw that a village was indicated southeast of us about 17 miles across the atoll. We took inventory, licked our wounds and waited. We speculated by whom or when we would be rescued.
Moonshadow appeared to be stable, but water was leaking through a crack in the starboard side. The hours dragged by and no boats, aircraft or people were sighted. About 1300, I decided to take a hike up the beach again to the west to look for passing vessels or a search party. I had walked about a half-mile when in the distance I saw two men walking my way. As they drew closer, they appeared to be islanders carrying a fishing float, so my first thought was that they might just be out fishing. However, it turned out that they were indeed our rescue party. They had received our distress call about 0730 from the Gendarmes in Rangiroa, who in turn got it from Papeete, who got it from the NOAA in the USA from our EPIRB. We were saved!
I was still overcome by shock and disbelief as our rescuers arrived. I kept trying to wake myself from this horrendous nightmare. I was not going to wake up, I was going to just have to deal. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. . . man, this ought to be real strengthening!
One of the men who rescued us happened to be the village chief. His name is Tetai. He was just the first of many incredibly warm, friendly, helpful, and generous people we would meet through this ordeal.
Cort and I decided to go to the village to arrange for assistance. Eric and Fred kept watch at “Camp Moonshadow” to insure that Moonshadow would not be looted. Tetai led us about half a mile through the jungle to the inner lagoon, where his boat was. He drove us to his village, took us to his house, fed us, gave us clean clothes and a shower and put us up for the night. He and his wife Veronica made us feel right at home.
We went to the city hall and called Papeete to arrange a tug to pull Moonshadow off the reef. Because of storms in Raiatea, to the west of Tahiti, the tug had to stay there for at least a few days to assist in pulling a number of boats that had gone aground there. With the prospect of 15 foot seas coming in our direction, my heart sank. The thought of losing my home was too horrible to consider. Tetai felt that he could get some of the large and powerful boats from the village to pull her off.
By the next day, he had mobilized 25 villagers, four boats, chain saws (to cut logs to help roll the boat off the reef) and at least a thousand feet of heavy line. Instead of church that Sunday, the group came out and gave it their all to get us floating again. Unfortunately, Moonshadow’s 26 tons proved to be too much against the resources of the village. It was a huge disappointment, but at least the seas continued to be fairly calm.
We changed the watch at “Camp Moonshadow.” Fred and I went to the village and I again begged and pleaded to get the tug from Papeete out as quickly as possible. They said maybe it would leave Monday. Fred and I passed the time in the village playing pool on one of Tetai’s two tables, reading and enjoying the hospitality of our hosts. Just being with such wonderful and interesting people helped to take the edge off a bit.
Tetai took us out to Moonshadow again on Monday. We changed watches and Eric came into the village for a little R & R. More phone calls to Papeete. The tug boat outfit then informed me that before they would even dispatch the tug, the salvage company would first have to see the boat. More setbacks. More worrying that the seas may build and do more damage to Moonshadow before we could get her afloat. Our hosts continued to do anything they possibly could for us and would not let us help pay for anything with the exception of fuel for the boats on the failed rescue attempt. We were told that the tug would come possibly Wednesday but Thursday for sure. I had begun to lose faith in them.
After breakfast on Tuesday, I again made more phone calls to Tahiti. They said that Wednesday was out of the question for the tug, but that on Thursday both the tug and an expert in pulling boats off the reef would be there bright and early. The salvage expert, Warren told me later that he had pulled 140 vessels off of reefs in French Polynesia in 10 years-an average of more than one a month! We continued to marvel at the hospitality and helpfulness of our hosts. They would not allow us to pay for any food or lift a hand to help with anything. Tetai took us out to “Camp Moonshadow” in the afternoon. All was still well, albeit boring for the duty watch. Cort returned with me. That night we attended a wake of a friend of Tetai’s. It was actually quite an uplifting event with food, drink and festive Polynesian music. After, Tetai opened the “casino” on his front patio. They play a game that is sort of a cross between roulette and craps. At one time I saw equivalent to $1000 U.S. on the table! Even though these pearl farmers are not really busy, they seem to enjoy a decent standard of living and a fair amount of disposable income.
The waiting game continued. On Wednesday, Tetai, sensing our impatience arranged a fishing day for us. In the morning his son took us out spear fishing. I shot a parrotfish and when I jumped in the boat to drop it off, it swamped, getting water in the fuel, gasoline on us and ending the short expedition. Tetei’s son and his friend did get four nice grouper, though. I did get confirmation late in the morning that the tug Aito II had left Papeete and was on her way to rescue Moonshadow. After lunch, Tetai took us out in his boat, a 20-odd footer with a 150-horse outboard, in search of Mahi Mahi. This boat was designed for navigating through reefs, with a standup control station up forward and joystick steering. He took us out through the reef-strewn passes with precision skill. We banged around in the open ocean for about 45 minutes before we spotted some birds diving for baitfish. Tetai sped to the scene, spotted a Mahi and started in pursuit. He was hot on its tail as it leaped out of the water and zigged and zagged to lose us. After a few minutes of high speed chase, the Mahi slowed down and Tetai extended his right hand behind him. His son handed him a loaded spear gun. He continued to maneuver closer to the Mahi until he had a clear shot. Like a cowboy on a bucking horse shooting a rattlesnake on the trail, Tetai speared this fish. As soon as the Mahi (a female) was on board, he took off after the bull. Within minutes the scene was repeated. Cort and I were amazed. Do these guys know how to fish or what! Needless to say we had a great dinner of fresh fish that evening.
I woke up early Thursday morning and my anxiety was running high. Would we get Moonshadow floating that day or would she be mortally wounded coming off the reef? After a typical breakfast of coffee, fresh baguettes, fried steak, chicken and fish, we headed to the airport to pick up Warren and the salvage team from Tahiti. We arrived at “Camp Moonshadow” and the Aito II was already standing offshore. The seas were calm and I felt optimistic. Warren began barking orders to everyone and arranged a harness around the keel of Moonshadow. It took them a couple of hours to get everything ready. They moved Moonshadow slightly to get her away from some bad spots on the reef. We packed up “Camp Moonshadow.” In his matter-of-fact way, Warren said “a bad boat, she breaks up, a good boat, she comes off.”
Around noon, we were ready to go. Cort, Eric, and I jumped on board along with some of the salvage crew. Fred was coming from the village on another boat with MaiTai and our valuables — just in case. Warren gave the order and the Aito II pulled. The scraping sound was horrendous, but in a few moments, all was silent and Moonshadow was dead flat in the water-FLOATING!! The crew was mobilized. The salvage guys put some epoxy patch over the crack in the hull while we manned the bilge pumps. Within minutes the bilge was empty and the leak was just a minor drip. I donned a mask and went over the side to have a look. XShe had come off pretty well. With the exception of the original crack, the scratches she incurred coming off were pretty much just in the fairing. Her keel was fine, but the bottom two inches of the rudder were mangled a bit. Moonshadow would be OK!! She would go to Papeete on her own bottom. Fred, MaiTai and our bags joined us on board. It was time to say so long to our friends in Arutua. My eyes welled up as we waved goodbye and I thought to myself, how fortunate we were to have been in the care of these wonderful people throughout our ordeal.
Other than the towing harness breaking once along the way, we had an uneventful 28 hour trip to Papeete. Fred and Cort left on Saturday and Sunday, respectively and Eric hung out for another week to help me with the massive cleanup job. We got Moonshadow in dry dock on Monday, and on Tuesday afternoon, Eric and I popped over to the island of Moorea for three days of R & R at Club Med. Saturday, we jumped on a Corsair 747 for a quick eight-hour flight to Oakland.