Escape From Aitutaki

Position: 20 degrees, 07 minutes south; 160 degrees, 02 minutes west

The Captain and some of her helpers heel Charisma over to her rail

Jim was hanging on the halyard, while John (to the right) had it anchored to the reef to pull the mast over

John and Jim setting up the halyard anchor (note they are standing on the reef)

Giant clam


A little too much adventure today thank you very much. We almost spent the night and possibly much longer stuck aground in the pass, waiting for the next really high tide out of Aitutaki.

But first let me tell you about the marine reserve we visited today where they are growing endangered giant clams. These clams grow up to four feet across and we’ve been seeing them on our snorkeling expeditions. Yes, these are the ones you see on TV, grab the divers’ leg. They are big enough to do that, but they are filter feeders and not man-eaters. Anyway, they are also apparently delicious enough that they were almost collected to extinction. They are also very beautiful. When they are open, the “lips” of the clams are the most brilliant colors of blue, green, purple and yellow/brown, although the shells are just plain white. So we toured the facility where they are actually breeding them and then putting them out in the marine preserve. It takes about six years before they are old enough to transfer from the tanks to the lagoon.

After that, Orcinius (John and Lisa) and we “scootered” over to a nice little spot on the other side of the island for a last lunch on Aitutaki. The day was carefully scripted as it was important to time it to precisely hit high tide if we were to get out of the pass, so there was a little clock watching going on to make sure we made it back to our boats in time to get ready to leave. Orcinius was anchored with their stern tied by rope to a coconut palm and we were side tied to them. We knew it would take some effort to get untangled just getting out. Little did we know what lay ahead.

After lunch we motored back to the scooter rental place and dropped our trusty mounts off with a fond farewell. These are a darn fun way to get around the little islands and it looks like we might have opportunity to rent others in islands yet to be visited. The rental place was nice enough to drop us back at the boats so we saved a little time there that could be used preparing for sea.

After getting the dinghies stowed, engines put away, etc, we got together and briefed how we would deal with the pass and the spot where Charisma ran aground on the way in a couple days ago. It was agreed that Orcinius, which only draws 4.5 feet would lead and if we ran aground again, they would back up and grab a bridle prepared and in place on both boats to which we would attach a tow line. They could then pull us across the shallow spot if we “found” it again. Additionally Sockdologer (Jim and Karen) volunteered to follow us out in their dinghy and be the “in between” that could zip back and forth transferring lines and such if needed. So, it was with this little flotilla all set that the time came-about 30 minutes before highest tide. We started engines and prepared to leave. I put the engine in gear and throttled forward. Nothing. We didn’t budge. We were hard aground right there where we were anchored. At 30 minutes to high tide. Uh Oh!

I won’t describe in detail all the maneuvers we did to get off the bottom but suffice to say John worked hard on Orcinius to get the right purchase on Charisma to pull her forward, Lisa was masterful (as always) driving the big 44 foot cat and Sockdologer was great helping to keep their anchor line from getting sucked into our propwash as we were running at high power trying to drive off. Finally a combination of power, leverage and tide combined to float/drag us off our perch and we started moving. Cheers from all as we slipped into the (slightly) deeper water of the pass with Orcinius just in front of us as planned. The only problem here was that we had used precious time against the high tide just getting out. We motored very slowly down the pass, just 50 yards behind Orcinius, both boats seeking the best way through the narrow pass. You could see the undercut coral on each side and you the bottom just 6-7 feet below. Since we draw almost 6, we were holding our breath all the way. Just as we thought we might make it this time I felt the characteristic tap, tap, clunk of the bottom making contact with the sand/coral. Just as I was hoping against all hope that we would slide over the shallow spot, we hit solidly, the bow went down as we stopped and…(on the radio) I announced; “We’re aground”. Just as Orcinius was getting ready to come back to tow us out, THEY ran aground. I saw their boat shudder and tip forward then suddenly stop. This wasn’t part of the plan! Now even if they could get off, they couldn’t come back and tow us out. And the tide is now past its peak and starting its six hour journey to low tide. We were stuck and would start tipping over while spending a very uncomfortable night waiting for the next high tide 12 hours later and a chance to get off. No bueno. Not a good place to be.

We all jumped into action. We didn’t have long to somehow get us both out the pass. But as I was working on our problem, in the back of my mind I was thinking; “They only draw 4.5 feet to our 6 feet, how in the heck are we going to get over the next bump even if we get past this one?” Well, we’d get to that later, in the mean time we have this spot to get past. Back to the same “aground drill” we used earlier in the week. Move the heavy water jugs to the other side of the boat, move me to the bow and get Ann to try and drive us off, hoping that these changes would be enough to tip the keel over and allow us to sneak over the reef. We moved a couple feet and then stuck again. This time a bit further on as Charisma was now tipping over a little, standing on her keel in the increasingly shallow water. I’m guessing the depth at that point was around 5 feet 4 inches. We needed 8 more inches of water or make the boat 8 inches shallower in order to make it out. Turns out the latter is easier to do once you have reached maximum high tide as we already had.

Next step was to get Karen and Jim who were standing by in their dinghy to help. Karen came aboard and took the helm, Ann and I stayed on the bow and Jim hung off the end of the boom. We heeled Charisma over and down by the bow, put the engine in full forward, pushing billows of sand off the bottom and behind us. We again moved a little but just seemed to push even farther onto the bar or whatever was down there. Time is really working against us now. I can feel us tipped further over standing on the keel as the tide is starting to recede. At this point, John and Lisa got Orcinius loose and were able to continue out the pass. They radioed for Jim to come out and get John in the dinghy so he could come back and help. Lisa would stay with Orcinius to keep her on station just outside the pass.

While Jim was getting John and bringing him back, we were still working feverishly trying to beat the tide. Our next step was to unfurl the jib and try to use that as extra power and as a way to heel Charisma even further than we could with just our weight. There was 14 knots of wind off our quarter, so it might work. Getting ready, we unfurled the jib, quickly sheeted it in, applied full power on the engine and muscles tense and straining trying to will the boat off, we watched as we seemed to gain a few inches, then a few more then suddenly we broke free. We quickly doused the jib so as not to gain too much uncontrolled speed and slam into the reef. We only got about 40 feet when we hit another high spot and boom, we’re solid on again.

By this time Jim and John were almost back to Charisma and John had a plan. “Give me a halyard and tie it to your longest rope and give me your dinghy anchor.” As we quickly set that up, he Jim dragged the now extended halyard over to the side of the pass which was only about 25 feet away. They jumped out of the dinghy and were standing in four feet of water over coral and sand. They then planted the anchor in the sand and started to pull on the halyard (which since it goes to the top of the mast, this lever arm provides a lot of leverage to pull Charisma over on her side) trying to “tip” a 24,000 pound boat enough to tilt the keel such that we could get over what looked like less than five feet of water. Just then, another dinghy with the only other cruisers in the area showed up. Moe and Margaret from Wadda (from the US). They had been snorkeling and saw our boats stopped in the pass and thought, “That doesn’t look right!” While they were making their way over, I rigged a footstep out on the end of the boom for Moe to stand on-seeking maximum leverage. I stood on the boom out as far as I could balance, Margaret hung onto the boom, Ann was on the bowsprit, Karen at the helm and John and Jim standing on the edge of the pass pulling on the halyard. The combination had Charisma tipped over so far, her deck rail was almost in the water. This proved to be just barely enough because at full power we started inching forward dragging on the shallow bottom. Karen shouted, “It feels more like I’m driving a tractor through the field than a boat!” We were literally dragging Charisma over the shallow spot in the pass. Finally over, she was floating again and picking up speed very quickly. We throttled back and just then heard a muffled shout; “Bob!” I looked back and John, who was tied to the dinghy, halyard and anchor was being dragged through the water behind us. He had put his snorkel back on so he could breathe, since his face was being pulled under water, and unless I slowed down we were going to drown him. Also, when we broke free, Jim was pulling on the halyard and had to let go. That left him standing waist deep on the reef at the edge of the pass watching as John, dinghy and Charisma, all headed out! Fortunately Moe and Margaret went back in their dinghy to get him while John was able to disengage from us and we all headed out to deeper water.

I can’t quite describe how happy I was to be back in the deep blue. Floating. That’s what a boat’s supposed to do. We adored Aitutaki, but I am glad to be out although it was one of our favorite stops on the trip so far.

Once in deep water we hove to, as did Orcinius and both John and I dove to check the bottom on our respective boats. His description, “Well, we won’t have to sand the bottom when we haul for new bottom paint”. On Charisma there is a shallow gouge on the very bottom of the keel where we dragged over some coral, the bottom paint on the bottom of the keel is all rubbed off, but that’s all I could see for now. I’ll dive her again when I have more time and in calmer water, but it doesn’t look like all the dragging caused any serious damage. As for negotiating questionable passes again, I think I can say that I have now had quite enough of that kind of adventure. Many thanks to the cast of this adventure, including our Australian friends, Jo and Mike on shore, who helped untie the stern line to the palm tree and helped keep Sockdolager from swinging into us as we broke out of the mud! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

2 thoughts on “Escape From Aitutaki

  1. Well, somebody, somewhere said, “It takes a flotilla.” And so it did. I am so glad all you boaters play nice with one another. Very happy you managed to scrape out by the hair of your chinny, chin, chin. No more playing in the puddles kids. You just fall down and skin your knees; and break your toys.

    So…fair winds, blue skies, and deep, deep water. At all times.

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