I was sick for much of this journey to Fiji, mainly due to the short cross seas. We were on a reach to beam reach most of the way. Australia was getting pounded to our West with floods and high winds but we suffered from very few squalls, just plenty of wind. So we arrived both tired, and I, particularly energy depleted.
We had a few hours sleep just inside the reef before a blissfully gentle sail over to Lautoka. Here we started the check in process and were able to contact Sally, our friend. Sally had arrived the previous day to visit us and was waiting with bated breath at a hotel near the airport.
Checking in took longer than we thought and once checked in we then needed to apply for a cruising permit in order to be allowed to leave Lautoka port area. Since it was now too late in the day we arranged to apply for this at a marina nearer to Sally and went to see her, arriving at her beach in the dark.
The next day the correct officials were not to be where we'd been told, so it was another day before we could apply and finally get our permission to sail to the islands. Once we were finally permitted it was late in the day. We were feeling pretty bad for Sally at this point who had already spent four days of her short holiday, waiting for it to start. Two days at not particularly comfortable anchorages and dinghying in less than ideal circumstances.
So we finally set off, poured ourselves a G and T and headed over towards an island about 15 miles away. There was a lovely breeze and we set sail with just our jib rolling along. As dusk fell so did the rain which gradually turned into a squall. We were sailing along at somewhere between six and seven knots when it started to dawn on me that I could hear and then see breaking waves then SCRUNCH.
Duncan hurtled out and rolled away the jib with eyes wild with panic. I was still holding the tiller not knowing what else to do.
We were well and truly aground with waves breaking into the reef and the boat banging up and down in place.
We tried motoring off in reverse. Wondering each time we were lifted on a wave if this might be the time we might just move backwards only to come down with a sickening crash each time in the same place. The engine stopped a few times, was restarted, then eventually whizzed away clearly with no resistance.
'We've lost the prop!' shouted Duncan against the crunching and the wind and waves. Despite the bilges at this point still being dry we decided it was time to call in a mayday as with every crash we worried for the hull.
Sally has just completed her VHF course in the uk so she was set doing this whilst Duncan and I battled about with ropes, anchors and the dinghy. Frequently checking Sally was OK and reassuring her that yes we needed help, preferably a tow but at this time did not want rescuing off the boat.
It was at least an hour and a half before we finally freed ourselves and got some water under our keel. Not before sustaining a few minor injuries each whilst deluged in adrenaline and rain.
It was our second anchor which got us out of trouble. After our main anchor, set with 100m of rope behind us hadn't succeeded we got all our available ropes out. I proceeded to tie them together and feed them out through the forward fairlead whilst Duncan rowed out against the wind as far as he could perpendicular to the boat.
As we took turns winching at the mast bringing in rope after rope we thanked our lucky stars that we had all the stuff we needed, a strong boat and each other. The tidal range is only about a metre here but we were helped by this at least going in our favour.
Once we were afloat again and still had no water in the bilge we double checked that there was enough of our huge rudder left to be able to steer. Though clearly it had been damaged and was stiff at its outer limits it appeared sufficient. Here's a picture from when we were lifted in Texas to demonstrate why we were concerned. Since our propeller was gone we envisaged extensive damage to all that lower section of rudder and weren't sure if the bottom hinge (gudgeon and pintale) remained.
Though things were still far from peachy we agreed to cancel the mayday and say thanks but no thanks to the tow which had been arranged but was standing by at the nearest marina. They had been unwilling to set out to help us until the bad weather had passed which worked in our favour as salvage rules mean that if they'd helped, they would be entitled to charge whatever they liked. Up to the entire value of the boat possibly.
An option would be to stay put where we were. Since both our big anchors were out on rope we were too concerned that either the wind might change or a rope might wear through on the coral. Our particular squall had now passed but there was still plenty of weather rumbling around the sky to make it unpredictable. Duncan and I agreed that this wasn't the best thing to do tonight. We agreed that we would sail back to the marina entrance we'd left that afternoon.
This wasn't a particularly easy option either since the weather was unsettled with very light wind at that time. We also weren't at all sure we'd be able to get either anchor back onboard. Whilst deliberating our options poor Sally was outside trying to recover from all the excitement and feeling very sick.
As suspected we couldn't get either anchor up and it was too dark to go looking to see why this was. Without use of the engine we only had one direction of pull and we were still nearer the reef than was conducive to much messing about. We agreed to buoy them with fenders with our contact details on and leave them. We still had all our chain onboard together with a tiny Danforth and big aluminium fortress anchor which we'd never used before but should technically be ideal for the soft mud conditions we knew were outside the marina entrance.
Duncan enjoyed his sail back across the bay. We were very careful to keep to our outward track. Once I was confident he was OK and that the adrenaline was dissipating Sally and I had a well earned rest. I couldn't really sleep but lay still with my eyes shut trying very hard to calm down. It had all been a bit much!
The next day Duncan went to survey the damage done and came up with pretty good news. The damage was limited to surface scrapes, a gnarled up edge of rudder and a ground away propeller. Nevertheless we arranged to get pulled out at the marina. The rudder is plywood wrapped in fibreglass and would be soaking in water and we were pretty sure we'd need to order a new propeller as the chances of finding one in Fiji were very slim.
Somehow that small list of jobs became almost 6 weeks on the hard. It was hot and dusty and hard work in the heat. We had to wait for the new propeller to be made and sent from New Zealand and more bottom paint to come from Australia but mostly the time was taken up cutting back the rudder to splice in then fair in the repairs and lots of other jobs we took the opportunity of doing whilst we had chance.
Scratches were all pretty shallow in the hull and mostly on the port side as that was the way we'd between heeling.
So we made our new staysail (cut down from an old bigger sail we'd acquired along the way). We finally fitted our new lexan in our centre hatch and cut and shaped our new Corian kitchen worktops. Both these jobs much better done on the hard so we could gather up the plastic shavings and dust rather than risk them going in the sea.
We scraped back and varnished our toerails and rudder cheeks. Also with the force of pounding up and down on the reef and possibly when trying to get off backwards we'd somehow managed to seriously bend Beryl (our Aries windvanes) stainless mount. Thankfully Beryl was fine so we got a local welder to cut and replace some of the struts. It's still not quite straight but much better and seems to work.
Beryl's mounting got a bit bent from the force on the servo which also was damaged and repaired with foam filler and fibreglass...
Now we're back in the water and the whole ordeal slips in to the past we've had some time to reflect on what we have gleaned from the whole affair:
We are amazed at how little damage there was given the severity of the incident. Our boat is strong and well built and we now have even more confidence in it.
In retrospect it was a mistake to try motoring off when we had sailed on at such a lick. When the engine had stopped once we should have moved to a different tactic. We've had cause to pull ourselves off and through things a few times now (though nothing like this before) and it works really well. We should remember this in future and not let urgency cloud our thinking. It's easy and quick to turn to the engine and if it works early on all well and good. However when you're really aground pulling the boat towards deeper water using an anchor and winch is a clear winner. Had we done this earlier the rudder would have been less damaged and we'd have still had a useable propeller.
We're embarrassed about the whole affair as we just shouldn't have been there. Various things conspired for us to make poor decisions but we're moving on with much more caution.
The reef we hit was on the paper chart however when we'd tried to buy one earlier that day the shop had been out of stock. Our open cpn cm93 (freebie) charts are not at all good for Fiji, and asking around cruisers there are no charts of Fiji which can truly be fully relied upon. We were also being blasé, having been in the well charted New Zealand for a while. The way to navigate around the coral is well known to be always to move early in daylight hours keeping a constant vigilant look out and to also use satellite imagery to help see where the coral is. To that extent as soon as we can source some suitable timber we shall be making ratlines to climb high to look out as the view up high makes the water colours and breaking waves easier to spot.
We've now got Google earth downloaded for Fiji and will be getting it for wherever we go in future if possible. What we have is not all high resolution but in time we'll figure it out and when it is in high resolution it's massively helpful.
The yard wasn't an altogether terrible experience. The staff were really helpful and friendly. Whilst there we met person after person who had similar tales to tell culminating in hearing that on the 15th July the Fijian navy embarrassingly ran a ship onto a well known reef outside Suva.
We've gained a new pet. This is midnight rambler (because he has sticky fingers) who must have come aboard whilst we were on land. We're welcoming him and hoping he'll help us deal with all the bugs which plagued the marina we were doing our repairs at, particularly the cockroaches and ants.
Now we're eventually out sailing the Yasawa islands as intended. I've finally finished sewing our flag for Fiji and we're enjoying frequent swims and gradually getting things ship shape.
This is a Waloo or Spanish mackerel, since getting away from the busy areas the fishing had been great!