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Steel hulls and a cooperative navy

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #119 January/February 2002

From Ocean Navigator #119 January/February 2002

A New Zealand family was stranded on a treacherous reef in the Coral Sea for nearly a week in July after their vessel was swept ashore. Their 38-foot steel sloop Aimlis was swept onto the 200-mile-long Chesterfield Reef on July 17th in a spell of rough weather, but the vessel was eventually towed free by an Australian Navy vessel, having suffered minimal damage. No one was injured.

Chesterfield Reef lies between New Caledonia and Australia. One unlucky vessel washed ashore here but was towed off by an Australian minesweeper
   Image Credit: Tere Batham

Chesterfield Reef belongs to New Caledonia but lies more than 200 miles from its northern tip. Australia is another 400 miles to the west. The reef, an atoll, rises steeply from the seabed to the surface. Without a good lookout and careful navigation, a yacht might be sailing comfortably in the long swells of deep water one minute, and be sucked with a wave onto the breaking reef in the next.

Untold numbers of ships have been lost here. As early as 1863, nine ships, including the whaling schooner Prince of Denmark, had wrecked there. Capt. J.B. Bennet of the Prince of Denmark, and his crew of Pacific islanders, were able to scavenge enough timber from the many wrecks to build another small vessel. The crude vessel, which they dubbed Hamlet's Ghost, carried the shipwrecked sailors safely to Australia.

Chesterfield Reef extends nearly 250 miles from north to south and is the largest isolated reef scattered across the infamous Coral Sea. It is featureless except for a few sandy cays supporting little but a thin cover of parched scrub. Seabirds beyond count roost on the scraps of dry sand to raise their young, and the tracks of large turtle that heave themselves ashore at night heavily corrugate the beaches. There are several breaks through the reef edge into the huge lagoon. Yachts often stop to enjoy a brief refreshment in the lagoon to break the 800-nm haul between the Solomon Islands or Vanuatu and Australia, though stopping is technically illegal.

Aimlis went ashore near Long Island, and heavy seas pushed the yacht even farther onto the reef. A pass just to the north of Long Island into the lagoon can be easily negotiated in good daylight. On the seaward side of this sandy cay are shallows and a broad shelf that extend about 100 yards to the drop off. There the crew was obliged to remain on the yacht, which was listing 45 degrees, for several days until the Royal Australian minesweeper, HMAS Huon, came to their rescue.

Christchurch engineer David Cairns, his wife Diane and their 24-year-old daughter Theresa were sailing from Queensland, Australia, to Vanuatu when the grounding accident occurred. Cairns, an experienced sailor, had built the yacht 10 years before, and was understandably reluctant to abandon it. Cairns was able to bend the ear of the commander sufficiently to at least give it a try. But towing vessels off reefs can be hazardous. In many instances both vessels have ended up on the reef together.

John Griffith, commanding officer of HMAS Huon, commented with typical Aussie humor, "If he'd been any further ashore he could have planted a garden!"

The salvage mission proved to be spectacular.

"Mr. Cairns and our petty officer on board had a ride that was better than any Easter Show ride. They went up and down, into a hole, and came up pretty vertical before settling down," Griffith said.

Griffith continued, "The yacht's in good nick. It will need a new paint job but it's a strong and well-built thing."

The Cairns family planned to continue their interrupted voyage to Vanuatu, and return to New Zealand in September.