The Scariest Thing, By Brian

I actually wrote this blog months ago, while we were still in Tonga.  For some reason I didn’t post it.  Maybe I thought it wasn’t relevant, or maybe just too dramatic. 

After a recent visit back to the US I realized there were a few questions that friends and family always asked.  1) How are the pirates?  2)Do you carry guns for the pirates? 3)What’s the scariest thing you’ve seen?

Well, there aren’t any pirates and we don’t carry guns on board.  When I tell people the scariest experience since leaving was driving on the I-95 between Orlando and Miami they look at me dumbfounded.  So, I decided to put this post up because it’s the closest thing we have.  Even though Delos wasn’t in danger some very dear friends were and it scared the hell out of us.

By the way- All the facts and details in this story are true but I have changed a name here and there to preserve their anonymity.


“PAN PAN! PAN PAN!  This is Sea Gypsy.  We’re hard aground and need help!” said the trembling voice over the VHF radio.

Erin and I bolted out of bed and were at the VHF in record time.  “Sea Gypsy- this is Delos.  How can we help?” we answered.  “Sea Gypsy- this is Pikea Mist.  What do you need?”  came another reply from Pikea Mist, a Bennetau 50 anchored nearby.

“Our anchor broke loose in the squall.   We swung into the reef.   We’re stuck.  The boats banging against the coral and we can’t power off.  Can you help us?” said the understandably strained voice of Chris booming through the radio.  Sea Gypsy had been our cruising buddy boat for the last few weeks as we worked our way through Vava’u and Happai, Tonga.  They were anchored about a mile away on the other side of the bay.

It was 5:00AM and pitch black with rain coming down in sheets.  The breeze was 25 knots gusting to 30 out of the southwest, a huge change from the perfectly calm conditions when we went to bed just a few hours earlier.  Over night we’d seen a few squalls and had slept fitfully, doing the anchor alarm drill every few hours as another squall passed.  Hop out of bed, check our GPS position, check our depth, check the wind, reset the alarm, and try to get back to sleep before the wind shifted again and the whole process started over.  This squall seemed to have more teeth than the previous ones and was coming from a totally different direction.

Erin handed me a pair of shorts as I woke Brady up.  Apparently clothes weren’t on my mind in the earlier frenzy to respond.  Pan Pan is a call put out on the radio when a vessel or crew is in serious danger .  It’s only one step down from a mayday, which means a boat is sinking or on fire and there is immediate jeopardy to life.  We’ve only heard a few Pan Pan’s since leaving Seattle, most of these were off the coast of California where the US Coast Guard immediately responds.  The closest coast guard to Tonga is in New Zealand, about 1,200 miles away.

Brady and I suited up in our foulies, grabbed a portable VHF, depth sounder, dive mask, and headed out.  We raced across the darkness planing down the waves driven up by the squall, doing our best to avoid the reef between us and Sea Gypsy on the other side of the anchorage.  Erin remained on Delos for anchor watch as we didn’t want to leave our boat unattended in these conditions.

As we approached we could see Sea Gypsy lit up with all her deck lights blazing.  You could immediately tell something was very wrong.  The gentle rocking of a boat afloat wasn’t present.  She was definitely hard aground and heeling to port at about 5 degrees.  As the wind and waves hit her directly on the beam there was no movement at all, even though both conspired to drive her further onto the reef.  The crew of Sea Gypsy- Chris, Amanda, and their daughter Jenna were understandably shaken.  You could hear terrible grinding noises as the boat thumped up and down with each passing swell, shaking the deck under their feet.

We immediately went into action by deploying their primary and secondary anchor out to starboard using the dinghy to keep Sea Gypsy from getting pushed further onto the reef. The conditions were terrible and it wasn’t long before the waves had filled our dinghy so high we were barely above water.    Every once in a while a larger than normal set would push us back, ramming the dinghy into the hull of Sea Gypsy.  We strapped the fuel tank to the front of the bow to keep it from getting swamped while Brady bailed and pumped like mad.  In surveying the depth around Sea Gypsy we actually ran the dinghy aground right under their bow, hearing the sickening noise as our propeller met with coral.  The bad news: 2 feet of water to port, 1 foot of water at the bow.  The good news: 14 feet of water to aft and starboard.  If we could somehow move Sea Gypsy backwards and to starboard we could get her into deeper water and give Chris a chance to maneuver out of the minefield of coral reefs under his own power.  There was no sign of water entering the boat and even if there was there was a better chance of effecting repairs once Sea Gypsy was back afloat rather than bashing against the reef.  With the tide due to drop another 3 feet over the next few hours we rushed into action.

By this time Michael from Pikea Mist and Bill from Jarana had arrived and were ready to help out. We redeployed the secondary anchor slightly to aft of starboard and hooked Pikea Mist’s larger and more powerful dinghy to Sea Gypsy’s main utility halyard.  The idea was to simultaneously heel Sea Gypsy to starboard with the dingies tethered together and then winch in the primary and stern anchors.  We’d used this trick in Mexico before.  Sometimes heeling the boat over just a few degrees will give you enough clearance to float a boat off.

We pulled and pulled, both dingies maxed out and straining against the halyard.  Sea Gypsy pulled in her stern anchor and primary anchor simultaneously while maxed out in reverse.  She Gypsy didn’t budge and we ended up dragging both anchors right back to the boat.  We reset them and tried a few more times.  The only thing we had to show for our troubles was a severely bent anchor shank.  With time running down and the tide dropping at an alarming rate we decided to go back to Delos for our big spare anchors, a 75 lb bruce and an FX-55 fortress along with two 300 foot warping lines we had stashed in the aft locker.

With Sea Gypsy now healing to port at about 10 degrees we rushed back to Delos, checked in with Erin, and started chucking the heavy and unwieldy gear into our dinghy.  The ride back to Sea Gypsy was excruciatingly long and painful.  We could no longer plane with the added weight so we slowly crept across the anchorage.  Nearing 6:00AM we at least had some good news.  The sun was starting to rise and the squall had tamed down a bit, both things that would make our job much easier.

With enough light to see we decided to survey the situation under Sea Gypsy, both to check for damage and verify the direction to pull her out.  I put on my mask and fins and fully clothed in foulies went in for an early morning snorkel.  The news wasn’t all bad.  Yes, Sea Gypsy was firmly stuck on her keel but there didn’t seem to be any damage to the hull and the flat part of the keel was resting on a flat piece of reef taking the weight of the boat as it was designed to.  Chris and crew seemed to breathe a sigh of relief upon hearing this news.

Using the dingies we set our Fortress directly to stern, and our Bruce directly to starboard, each out on 300ft of 3/4” line.  We winched and winched until both primary winches were so loaded up they wouldn’t make another turn.  With the anchors set and rodes guitar string tight we once again used the dingies to try and heel the boat over to starboard with the halyard.  Suddenly the Bruce let loose and was drug back to Sea Gypsy.  Disheartened we once again started over setting the Bruce out to starboard, but this time hooking it to the utility halyard instead of the dingies.  With the mast acting as a huge lever  were hoping the anchor rode  would have enough force to heel the boat over to starboard.

With Sea Gypsy straining in reverse Brady cranked on the utility halyard at the mast until it looked like a deranged zip-line beginning at the top of the mast and disappearing out into the water.  Sea Gypsy slowly but surely began to right herself, then healed ever so slightly to starboard.  At first we thought the movement was an illusion, but soon enough all hell broke loose as we started accelerating in reverse.  We were moving backwards!  All hands were needed to simultaneously let out scope on the bow and starboard anchors, while taking in scope on the stern anchor to avoid fouling the prop in all the loose line.  At the same time Chris needed to spin the bow fast to starboard, up into the wind and waves, to fit through a narrow space between two more coral heads.

Pressed for time we ended up cutting free all the anchors, including Sea Gypsy’s primary, and just dropping them into the water to be retrieved later.  Our primary concern was getting her back into deep water and figuring things out from there.  On the way to deeper water Sea Gypsy had encounters with two more reefs, each time being driven down hard by adverse waves and wind.  Luckily with some expert maneuvering at the helm and me in the water giving direction Chris was able to drive off under his own power.  It was an incredible sight to see this from my vantage point, snorkeling just a few feet from the boat.  Looking back I wished I had a camera to capture some of the drama but it wasn’t on anyone’s mind at the time.  With Sea Gypsy now safe and holding station in 30 feet of water we breathed a sigh of relief.  With the help of Michael and Bill we went to the task of retrieving 3 anchors and almost 1000 feet of chain and line (by hand) that had been left behind.

Adrenaline wearing off we helped Sea Gypsy anchor in the soft sand next to Delos.  With her safely back at anchor we took a few minutes to get some hot chocolate, breakfast, and calm down after the harrowing morning.  The entire day we talked about a thousand other ways this could have turned out.

Just since we’ve been in Tonga two cruising boats have sunk in the Happai Group, taking their owners dreams and possessions to the bottom.  We contemplated how that could have been us instead of Sea Gypsy.  We nearly anchored right next to them and it was only a last minute decision that changed our minds.  How many reefs have we anchored close to?  How many squalls have we rode through without incident, the only thing keeping us from disaster a simple piece of chain and anchor laying on the bottom?

Just like Chris on Sea Gypsy we do our best to tip the odds in our favor.  We set anchor alarms, snorkel our anchor and chain, and pay attention to the weather.  Sometimes things just happen even if you are diligent.  You can go to bed after a wonderful day in paradise only to wake up a few hours later faced with the reality that your dreams could end at any moment.

I’ve heard there are two types of sailors- those that have run aground and those that will.  We ran aground in the soft mud pulling into Barra de Navidad in Mexico.  We were only stuck for 30 seconds and able to back out under our own power.  Hopefully this counts and appeases Neptune on our behalf!