We had a tiny weather window over to Suwarrow but as we’d been waiting around in Bora Bora for a while and were fed up with the weather we decided to give it a go.
Unlike most passages we didn’t have to be up at the crack of dawn, the plan was to leave at Midday to allow some of the swell to subside. By 11am we were ready to go, so we slipped the mooring an hour early. That must be a first for us!
We snuck through the passage in the reef ahead of a squall and thanked our lucky stars that we were out in the rolling seas before it hit. The rolly seas continued but we forged ahead, looking forward to some better conditions later in the trip. Dinner came and went, and then sunset. The conditions were still quite uncomfortable but we tried to take some rest all the same.
At about midnight, we heard a crackly noise on the radio. “That’s a Pan Pan!”, Simon said. I couldn’t hear it and I couldn’t see anyone around.
At that point a light came on just to our Port so we headed towards it. As we got closer we could hear them more clearly. Yes indeed this was a Pan Pan. For those non-sailing types that’s a request for help, a step away from a Mayday!
A man traveling with his family kept saying he had “Broken my boat!!”. Apparently the sails weren’t working and neither was the engine, so they were drifting and didn’t have any power. They asked us to ‘stand on’ until morning when the rescue boat they’d called via sat phone would arrive.
From the position he’d given we thought we were about three miles away from him. We motored towards them, straight into the wind and waves. The boat took a real pounding and the noise was terrible but as always Interlude took it on the chin.
The boat in distress had no lights, apart from a small flashlight that kept turning off, so it was extremely hard to work out exactly where they were, and at what distance. The last thing we wanted to do was run into them so we kept flashing our lights on their hull to try and keep a safe distance. Radar wasn’t showing us anything apart from the waves, which were growing as the conditions worsened. Over 4m waves close together and with over 25 knots of wind right on the nose. Horrid!
Simon kept trying to make more sense of what had happened by radioing them. We couldn’t hear much but could tell they were pretty beaten up and scared.
We drifted with them for six hours in the turbulent seas. We tried to get the boat to stop rocking but the confused conditions meant the boat wouldn’t settle so we were getting thrown around all over the place. It was one of the worst nights of our trip. Neither of us could catch any sleep as we had to stay above decks if we had any chance of keeping our dinner down. We were frustrated as we knew each hour here was shortening our weather window and we were already cutting it very fine. We thought about the other boat with two small children onboard, who must be doing it worse. They seemed very shaken and really if the shoe was on the other foot we knew we would appreciate the support.
Morning came, not a minute too soon, and sunrise brought Hope and a rescue boat. A small sailing vessel, “Hope” helped us to communicate with the rescue boat and once it arrived the distressed boat gave us our leave. We were all too happy to hoist the sails and get on our way. They, meanwhile, would be towed back 120 miles into the wind and waves to Raiatea, not a pleasant way to spend a day or two but fingers crossed they’ll be ok.
As we feared, the weather front we’d been trying to stay ahead of instead smashed us overnight, so later that day the wind gave out and we reluctantly put on the engine. Grrrr! We were supposed to stay ahead in the calmer, smooth winds but our six-hour delay had blown that. After eight hours of motoring the wind came back strong, the waves grew and we started sailing again.
The next few days passed uneventfully, mainly as we were trying to catch up on sleep. Each day was cloudy and each night bought squalls. Tough sailing conditions but nothing we hadn’t seen before. Everything just seemed worse as we were so tired.
As we got closer to Suwarrow we started to watch our ‘ETA’ display to work out our estimated time of arrival. It looked like we would arrive around around 6 hours late. At sunset or just thereafter which would mean another night of drifting, and we didn’t like the sound of that. The pass into the anchorage is pretty tricky though and not something you would want to attempt in darkness.
We could increase our sail area to go faster but that would put us a risk if another squall came over and with big winds we didn’t fancy that either. So there was nothing else to do but continue on our way.
Lo and behold, we arrived just after sunset. We didn’t even get to see the island so we were reliant on our chart plotter, but our radar, and a lone anchor light in the anchorage beyond the reef, confirmed what the chart plotter showed.
We had reduced sail and were still travelling way too fast. We would be racing past the island if we were non too careful. The thought of taking all the sails down and drifting again made our stomachs churn. ‘Heaving too’ sounded like a good prospect but we hadn’t done it much before and in our weary state we couldn’t really remember how to. So out came the books and we found a little paragraph briefly describing how to do it and also saying modern boats couldn’t. Humm! Anyway with no better option we gave it a go. With a small sail out one way and our rudder over the other way we reduced our speed to a knot or two and the boat motion calmed right down so we could grab some sleep.
By morning we had sailed 10 miles past the island so we put on the motor and headed back around. As always (it seems) the wind and waves were against us. The conditions had deteriorated again, it was horrible and we were only travelling at two or three knots, tops.
We were also worried about navigating the pass in these conditions. We called the Ranger on the radio and got no answer. We were considering continuing on our way to Samoa and missing Suwarrow altogether, despite the weather looking bleak for that run too.
That’s when our good friends on Winterlude and Imoogie turned up. They had set off a day later and were approaching the pass from the other side. Chatting with those guys gave us the confidence we needed to give the pass a go. So an hour later we followed them in. Just as one final squall dumped sheets of rain on us.
The pass had a three knot, out-going current as well as a few reefs to navigate. But we made it! We dropped the anchor in front of a desert island and slowly began to relax after what has to be one of our worst crossings yet.
We hope we’re never involved in another Pan Pan.