The Rescue of Wanderer III
When the 30-foot Bermudian-rigged wooden sloop once owned by Eric and Susan Hiscock is caught on the barrier reef outside Nouvelle-Calédonie, a maelstrom of quick actions and overwhelming emotions ensues.
After a two-year refit of Wanderer III and a rough, nine-day passage from New Zealand to Nouvelle-Calédonie, we now had nothing but turquoise water on our minds. Kicki Ericson, my wife, and I planned to spend a few weeks of lazy indulgence on the island, then work to fill the kitty before continuing on to China. It was July 2003, and we were finally out voyaging again. As we approached our first landfall at Nouvelle-Calédonie, we saw the solid shape and the bright flashing light of the Amédée lighthouse. It's part of a leading light through Passe de Boulari, the main pass through the reef into Nouméa. Ten years before, I had entered here in daylight.
My chart had been old then, and since those days, time had been rough with the black-and-white copy of an original in too small a scale. I'd changed Wanderer's frames and floors and much else but not, unfortunately, this chart. My old pencil marks on the chart had remained sharp, but the print was fading.
The leading lights were there, on Récif Toombo and Récif To, both of no relevance once we were on course. I fumbled with the chart-table lamp to read the small print around Récif Tabou, for that one mattered. Once we spotted it, we had to turn to port and head straight north for it, and leave the leading line. I followed the nearly indecipherable dotted arc around its light, partitioned into sectors. White; obscured. White again? The chart wasn't clear. When I headed back up into the cockpit to wait for the leading lights to fall into line, "white" was imprinted in my brain. Just off Amédée lighthouse, a tiny touch to the west and on the correct bearing from where we were, I spotted it: a light. White! Récif Tabou! I was hooked.
Having picked up the leading lights five miles off, we were comfortably holding the heading in a moderate breeze. I saw smaller red and green blinking buoys to starboard that my old chart didn't show; I interpreted these to be new guides through a secondary entrance, and in fact, that's what they were.
But with lights added, had others been changed?
How on earth could these lights have failed to reawaken the caution that had always served me well? We shouldn't even be close enough to see them. Why didn't I do as I've always done, over so many years spent in the reef-strewn waters of Kiribati, Micronesia, and Indonesia? Impeccably timing critical passages with the full moon, never taking risks, absolutely never going in-anywhere-at night. There was one resolution that my ownership of Wanderer III since 1981 had deeply ingrained in me: A storm, a freak incident, c'est la vie. But I was never to lose her through bad seamanship.
At other times, we hove to. It's so easily done. And Wanderer III does it so well, in storms, in bad weather, and off tricky landfalls. An underrated element of seamanship, hoving to is vital when sailing requires vigilance, alertness, and good judgment rather than dependence upon electronics.
Surely this wasn't a remote pass in a banana republic. This was Nouvelle-Calédonie, Europe in the Pacific; this was France. In 1961, the Hiscocks had made it through here on Wanderer III at night.
But we weren't the Hiscocks. And on that night, something went critically astray in my mind and my focus. The pelagic harmony I once knew, now two years unmaintained, had gone. After having given Wanderer III a new skeleton, she was definitely in better sea shape at the age of 50 than I was. I lacked the mental agility of the sailor that I'd been. As in a game of roulette, my vision had rotated round the dark plate of ocean and got stuck in one section: the white light. And I no longer took other things I saw into account.
With my hand on the tiller, we carried on toward the invisible cut through the reef. Whatever current there was, it was easily countered so that we could repeatedly line up the lights. The sails pulled well. We slipped through the outside barrier with no visible signs of breakers, but we believed we'd heard them a wee time back. But how far away were they?
I saw a green light. When will the white light on Tabou finally come to bear 360 degrees, so we can turn, I wondered. It can't be long. I glanced at the hand-bearing compass on the foredeck, and I was about to say "Now" to Kicki-and then we hit. Something. Something real hard. Whatever it was, I kept waiting to sail over it. But we didn't. I felt a dreamlike denial. Pull down the sails! Your hands immediately do the right things, but your mind is locked in disbelief. Yet the pounding that sent shockwaves into our bone marrow was real, the walls of spray shooting across the deck and down the companionway were real, the surrealistic heel was all too real.
Every third or fourth swell was bigger and lifted Wanderer III more violently. The hull was crashing and grinding on the reef. I grabbed a light. It lit up coral heads and a shrunken horizon of breaking waves. I needed to do something to shift me back into reality, the good one. I reset a sail, but it didn't help. At last I threw an anchor, then settled into the confusion, the swell, the unforgiving harsh reality around me and searched for a rational lifeline.
Down below, Kicki, braced between the table and settee with the VHF mike in hand, was upset.
"Impossible! They don't stop talking. They just don't listen," she said. We couldn't make contact. I grabbed the binoculars and climbed back outside. The loom of Nouméa was visible 14 miles to the north, and I saw another green light not far off. Amédée's leading lights were still in line, but suddenly close.
I swung the binoculars farther around to that bright white light-and to a much weaker one beside it. It took a while for this to sink in. "Unbelievable," I thought. "Masts! Two yachts anchored behind a reef." We'd clearly sailed too far. Where was the light on Récif Tabou? It was invisible.
Kicki and I cut loose our solid dinghy. I left Kicki and the violently lurching Wanderer III, each thundering thud rattling their bones. I headed off into the dark.
I rowed half a mile over choppy waters and coral toward an anchor light atop a mast. Then I rapped on the hull of a luxury yacht-ridiculous, unexpected knocks to anyone who heard them an hour before midnight at the edge of Nouvelle-Calédonie's barrier reef. Three people came out. Under the flood of the spreader lights, I resembled the seagoing equivalent of the yeti, with some Rasputin and Eric the Red thrown in: a strange, sodden being all hair, ripped wool, and oilskins. Only the despair in my eyes must have convinced them that I was human. I was asked on board Coconut, and there I poured out my story.