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.

Wanderer III 368

Leigh Teece

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.

The captain's name was Nick, and he said that time was precious: The tide would soon ebb. He'd try to pull us off. We might stand a chance if we could heel Wanderer III over by the mast. Claude, a French sailor on a neighboring catamaran, offered to pull as well. The two boats, with 65 horsepower between them, pulled on long ropes from the mast. Wanderer III crashed from port to starboard, swung her bow around, and much water sloshed inside. But she wouldn't budge a meter, and we had at least 20 to go. We gave up.

Meanwhile, the owner of Coconut had reached the Gendarmerie Maritime in Nouméa and, though no life was in danger, convinced them to come out. Thus we were given a second chance on that night, as long as Wanderer III could withstand the pounding of the swell. We were desperately hopeful to have them try to pull us off while the tide remained high. But their efforts fell short. They floated down a line, and their boat drifted into ridiculous pulling angles that made me cry out "Come on, come on, now!"

Then they asked for their line back and offered, instead, to let us spend the night aboard their ship. They planned to anchor close by. Our last feeble hopes dashed, there was little we could do on Wanderer III. To Kicki's surprise, I accepted their offer to leave our home. We packed a few things-documents, diaries, photos; as an afterthought, dry clothes-and said good-bye. There was water swishing over the floorboards. It seemed only a matter of time before Wanderer III would be lost. At 0300, they took us off our pounding boat, our dinghy in tow.

The tone aboard the anchored Gendarmerie ship was strangely subdued. Professionals, they left us to ourselves. Closely bonded as we were with our boat, there was no knowing where this would lead us, as a couple-without Wanderer III. Men in wetsuits passed wordlessly around corners to disappear outside. We heard splashes but gave them no notice.

Only later we learned that the Gendarmerie, in preparation to pull us off, had themselves touched the reef. While going beyond what was their duty and trying to save a boat rather than lives, they'd damaged their prop. Headquarters ordered their immediate return to Nouméa, which gave Kicki and I the chance to split up to save the boat. We had to. Kicki spoke some French. "You go. Try to get help, a tug, anything," I said. I took the dinghy and rowed across to Coconut, where they'd offered me refuge. Nick and I were calm and spoke little. He showed me a cabin, a cave to hide in, and I closed the door.

As soon as I'd stowed myself beneath a layer of fresh linen, I noticed something flickering. It was the shadow of a moving flag, passing through a skylight onto a bathroom mirror and into the depth of my soul. It totally captured me; I can still see it today. Well past 0400, the moon had finally risen, making visible the flag and, so, the wind.

My mind was spinning in awkward circles: "Must rebuild her, if only the keel remains. Must take it, start anew. Three to five years. Impossible. Or something else? Never! In New Zealand? Money? Us in Europe? Imagine."

Every time I opened my eyes, the shadow was there, reminding me of a reality that left me incredulous. By the way the shadow flickered, I could judge the force of the wind. Sharpened contours meant more wind, which meant doom. I feared them. I did fall asleep eventually and awoke at the break of dawn with the fluttering image gone. Squinting my eyes, I looked for Wanderer III in the haze. Worried by what I made out, I hurried to the bow for an unobstructed view. Could it be? With the night now gone, was her mast gone, too?

Just when the early morning haze was playing tricks with me, Kicki arrived in Nouméa. At 5:45 on a Sunday morning, with not a penny on her, she was on a mission to find a tug. Eventually she was deposited at the entrance gate to Nouméa's port, guarded by a friendly local. Leaving it unguarded, he drove her to the tug-company offices, which were just being locked by two employees, a Kanak and a Frenchman. Their tug was sitting right outside, but their boss couldn't be found. After hearing her story, they then phoned three other companies, each time relaying a string of questions and answers.

The first wouldn't do salvage of anything longer than six meters. The second wouldn't go as far as Amédée. The third said that they could do it, but not today; maybe tomorrow. Meanwhile, her boat was breaking up on the reef. Kicki could no longer hold back her tears. Aren't there any other options? The military? What's the phone number? A pause, a sigh, and then the Kanak said to the Frenchman: "Bien, alors, Monsieur Gallo." Let's try Monsieur Gallo. His was the cowboy outfit, the company that none of the professionals liked. They dialed his number and asked a few questions. In 15 minutes, he would be there, and he was.

A white-haired man in his 50s with burnt-red facial skin and a long scar across his throat soon asked Kicki to step aboard. They were off to the vessel on which the skipper, Willard, lived. Willard, with long blond hair and a Hawai'ian shirt, looked like a bird of paradise and attempted a peculiar dance. Swinging one leg over the railing, he fell over backward, disappeared, hit metal, bounced up again, and climbed aboard. When he noticed Kicki, he cracked a wide grin. "Bonjour, miss." Willard the skipper was clearly well oiled. What did it matter? By 8:15 on a Sunday morning, Kicki had a tug. But she didn't know whether she still had a boat.

She did. Having for six hours channeled all her energy toward being where she was now, on a tug en route to Amédée, she'd finally contacted Coconut to learn the news about Wanderer III. The news was emotional. On the two-hour trip, Monsieur Gallo was sympathetic. He also asked all the relevant questions: How many masts? Strong tying points? What wood was she built with?

Then, near the end: "And you can pay?"

Kicki looked him in the eyes and replied honestly: "We will find the money."

On Wanderer III, I knew by then that a tug was coming. Nick had motored over to tell me. Earlier, when I couldn't see the mast, I'd jumped into the dinghy and rowed off with desperate strokes. To my relief, I'd soon found that the mast was standing but that Wanderer III, lying quietly in less than a foot of water, was excessively heeled.

Barefoot, I pulled my dinghy over hundreds of meters of exposed coral heads-it was crazy. At the end, I had to climb the steeply heeled structure that was my home. I could see the 30-meter scrape that she'd cut diagonally over the reef. Her mad dash had stopped four meters short of a mean-looking group of coral heads. Inside, nothing moved, the amount of water in her hadn't increased, yet I could only guess the state of her planking. Still, I was hopeful. Alone, I dove and placed more anchors onto the reef, all with chain. In case she might have sprung a plank, I emptied and plugged the water tanks, blew up the inflatable, packed everything inside Wanderer III that would float, and took out what wouldn't. Perhaps she might find equilibrium below the surface and could be towed somewhere safe. Then, to make sure that she'd be pulled from her most secure point, Claude from the catamaran helped me rig a bridle through the aperture for the prop; its pulling point would be suspended just above her waterline by the bow.

We'd barely finished when Willard maneuvered the tug into position upwind. All that we needed to do now was float down a heavy hawser with a huge shackle, attach it to the bridle, and pull. Willard began gently, then increased the power. Nothing happened. The tug would nose forward, power backward, but the rope only made noise. Three times Willard tried, to no avail. But on the fourth try, the bow pulled around. "Voilà, la bijou. She's coming home," Kicki heard Willard say. On Wanderer III, I listened to grinding grunts that I never knew a boat could make.

Finally, she took a deep dive back into the sea. And stayed afloat. And took on no water. With the fine touch of a drunken bird of paradise, Willard had pulled Wanderer III back into her element and our lives.

That evening, we should really have been sitting on some friend's boat, lamenting the loss of Wanderer III. Instead, our paraffin lamps glowed, our chronometer ticked, and our cooker hissed. And as we prepared a simple meal, everything was in its familiar place: the potatoes, the plates, and the pots. The normality was nearly incomprehensible. True, everything was sodden, and the cabin was in chaos. Big repairs lay ahead of us, and we had big bills to pay. We didn't care. We had her back. And something beautiful was about to come our way.

Read about the repair of Wanderer III in the conclusion of this two-part series next month.