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Sleepless in Suva

Apr 24, 2013

To the editor: Last season we spent a few days in the busy harbor of Suva, the capital city of Fiji on board our 45-foot Liberty cutter, Nine of Cups. Large commercial ports are among our least favorite anchorages, but we needed to provision and then clear out of Fiji prior to sailing to Vanuatu. The channel leading into the port of Suva is long and narrow, with coral reefs on both sides. The pilot book and charts are good, however, and with proper diligence, it isn’t difficult to negotiate the channel safely into the harbor. The harbor itself is extensive and well protected. Large commercial vessels, ranging from offshore fishing boats to huge containerships and bulk carriers, anchor in the southern portion of the harbor. The yacht anchorage is set off by itself in the northwest section, and there were 25 to 30 sailboats anchored while we were there.

Throughout the day, the weather toyed with us. Bright, blazing sun alternated with vicious little squalls accompanied by torrents of rain and wind. We must have opened and closed the hatches and portholes 20 times throughout the day to let in the fresh air and then to keep out the rain. We were in bed by 2200, but slept fitfully as the squalls seemed to increase in intensity and duration. Around 0200, the wind had increased so much that the wind generator woke us up as it spun wildly.

We went topside for a quick anchor check and noticed that the wind had changed direction and freshened to about 30 knots from the southeast. Through the pelting rain, I checked Nine of Cups’ relative position with the other yachts in the anchorage. We were in good shape and no one seemed to be dragging despite the increased wind. Marcie pointed out that one of the ships, a medium-sized, old, rusty bulk carrier, was now directly upwind from us. It seemed considerably closer than we remembered from earlier in the evening. Had we really anchored that closely?

I decided to let out more scope. Marcie turned on the spreader lights to illuminate the deck. In just the seconds it took me to walk forward and Marcie to go below to turn on the lights, it became dreadfully apparent that the ship was not anchored at all. She was bearing down on us at an alarming rate...all 450 feet of her. The radio suddenly came alive with urgent hails. The startled crew of the ship, named Moamoa, knew she was dragging, but was reluctant to start engines and move without a pilot aboard. She was being blown directly into the yacht anchorage. Suva Port Control ordered the captain to start the engines and get control of his ship...NOW! Other yachts, frantic with their helplessness at the impending collision, added their voices, loud and panicked, to the radio traffic. Closer and closer she came...we could look up, up, up at her rusting stern. Her decks were higher than our second spreader and her transom seemed wider than Cups was long. There was no time to do anything. The chain was snubbed and more scope wouldn’t have helped in the least.

When the carrier was less than 25 feet away, I noticed that Cups was starting to swing to one side of the ship’s transom. I don’t know why, but the huge ship suddenly seemed to be moving to starboard. Perhaps, when she blocked the wind, our chain catenary caused Cups to start drifting out of harm’s way or perhaps there was a wind shift. No matter — we were definitely moving towards the port side of the ship. I quickly climbed out onto the bow pulpit and a second before contact, I planted my feet on her rusty transom. There was enough slack in the chain to allow me to push our bow past the corner of the ship’s stern. As the bulk of this rusting mass slid past us, I continued pushing Cups away. Moamoa missed us by a few critical inches.

The initial collision avoided, we realized that several other potential catastrophes awaited. We were upwind of at least 20 other yachts at anchor, and we watched helplessly as the ship dragged towards them. I worried that her anchor would foul ours as she dragged past us, initiating a new set of problems. At last, we heard her engines rumble to life and she began moving forward.

What followed was an amazing combination of seamanship and sheer luck. Although Moamoa came distressingly close several times, the ship’s crew managed to raise anchor in 30 knots of wind and maneuver out of the yacht anchorage without hitting either Cups or any of several other yachts anchored around us. Once clear she steamed to the other side of the harbor and re-anchored.

The wind and rain continued throughout the night. The fetch from across the bay had increased and Cups was pitching and rolling, but undamaged and still afloat. It took hours for the adrenalin to subside and for the two of us to calm down. Going back to sleep was out of the question. Marcie put on the tea kettle and we rehashed the events.

If the noise from our wind generator hadn’t awakened us, I am certain that we would, at the very least, been heavily damaged, and quite likely would have lost Cups and perhaps our lives.

We have given a great deal of thought about what we might have done differently. One possibility would have been to start the engine and try to motor to one side or the other to get out of the ship’s deadly path. Another possibility might have been to start the engine, put it in reverse, then let go all the chain. Quite frankly, however, by the time we realized the ship was dragging, she was on us, and I don’t think there would have been time to do either.

Something we should have done was warn the other yachts. Apparently several had their radios off and slept through the entire event. Our air horn was close at hand, and once the ship had cleared us, we should have been blasting away with it.

Lastly, I realize it was foolhardy to use myself as a human fender. The thought of having Cups rammed and potentially sunk, however, without trying to do everything possible was unbearable. Only with a large measure of luck and the help of Neptune, did it turn out well.

—David Lynn and his wife, Marcie, have lived aboard their 45-foot, 1986 Liberty cutter Nine of Cups since 2000.

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