Article reposted with permission from News From The Bow.
The day started like any other in paradise. On the Island of Malolo, Fiji, an incredible sunrise found the horizon dotted with small boats that carried local villagers from neighboring islands to work at our hotel. We too had decided to be afloat that day and reserved three spots on the classic S/V Seaspray, a vessel best known for its role in movies and television shows. It’s not often that you get the opportunity to sail on one of these classic twenty-five meter schooners!
A fast speedboat was to pick us up promptly at 1000 and rendezvous with Seaspray at Mana Island. I rounded up the family and made it to the dock by 9.55 AM, only to discover that the ferry had left with another couple at 9:30 AM. The fact that the speedboat departed without us early, and was required to return and make an extra round trip, should have been our first clue that things might not be right in paradise.
Our speedboat ferry was painted bright yellow, similar to those of Sea Tow. Its Captain wore a matching yellow tee shirt, which provided me with a sense of security. As a fifteen-year member I value and trust Sea Tow’s services and somehow expected the same quality from this similarly colored ferry. We sped away at 40-50 kts. powered by twin Yamaha outboards and reached Mana Island where Seaspray had left her mooring (no anchoring allowed due to the coral reefs below) and was already under way. This should have been clue number two that the day’s excursion wasn’t going as planned.
What should have been clue number three came when the Captain of our vessel cut behind Seaspray’s tender, collided with its aluminum transom frame, and buckled it into a shape that resembled spaghetti. I was quite surprised that no one appeared to be too concerned and guessed that Fijian islanders are well briefed to smile and make sure the guest’s experience comes first. A minor collision was not going to spoil an otherwise perfect day. We boarded using a gangway that was lowered to just above the waterline and were welcomed aboard. Relaxation with a glass of sparkling wine was soon followed by the requisite life jacket/emergency drill demonstration.
Our first stop was Monuriki lsland, which is where Tom Hanks and the movie Casterway was filmed. We noticed from the deck of our ship that ‘H-E-L-P’ was still spelled out with stones on the beach (nice touch)! We dove into paradise, and began to snorkel in the crystal clear water surrounded by fish of every species. It was as if we had fallen into an aquarium.
After a barbecue onboard, we set sail for Yanuya Island and were soon introduced to its local culture. A drink called Kava was passed around while we sat with the village Chief. As a sign of respect each visitor was expected to taste the muddy mixture. Thank goodness I had remembered to pack the Pepto Bismal.
After being ferried back onboard the extreme heat started to get to everyone. All 65 tourists were encouraged to jump overboard to cool off. The unusually salty water made us very buoyant. As I gently treaded water along with my fellow passengers I experienced what abandoning ship might be like. My wife asked me if there were sharks in the area and I confidently said “No way, they can’t afford to loose any tourists.” As I answered, I thought of the USS Indianapolis’ crew during WW2. Their ship went down without having time to send out a radio distress call. Due to the secrecy of their mission no search and rescue was initiated until five days after the sinking. By that time a significant number of the crew had been attacked and killed by sharks. I quickly reminded myself that we were not on a secret mission, the year was 2010, and we were merely on vacation. So much for the value of a fertile imagination.
By 5:00 PM we had returned to our mooring at Mana Island and our yellow-shirted Fijian Captain was waiting to ferry us back to the hotel. Fifteen minutes into the trip, at full throttle, both engines suddenly shuddered and died. The Captain grabbed his cell phone. I thought it was strange that he didn’t first attempt to restart the engines. Clue number three.
“No gas?” I asked the Captain. He responded with a worried nod and continued to wave his phone above his head, presumably seeking better reception. I thought back a few days to our initial ferry ride to the resort. Back then I had asked another Captain several typical boating questions. “Is Ch16 your emergency channel? Do you have “Red Right Returning” here? Are there any local clues to weather and storm forecasting? I couldn’t have known at the time that our near-future safety would depend largely on the answers to those questions.
“May I try your radio?” I asked, not meaning to take over his command. Despite its being set at full volume, with no squelch, the radio was silent. Clue number four was that every channel was silent. Our Captain assured us that fuel was on its way, but judging by the sweat on his face I got the feeling that contact with land, via his cell phone, had in fact not been established.
After a few minutes of contemplating our situation, I remembered what my nephew (a former US Marine) once told me. A single problem is not usually life threatening, but two concurrent problems can be serious and three can result in immanent danger. We were already up to problem number four. In our current situation, we had no fuel, no radio and two hours till sunset! I had also just seen the last ferry of the day pass by and disappear over the horizon.
I opened the cabin door hoping to discover a five-gallon fuel drum, but alas, it was not to be. At least there were life jackets littered all over the cabin sole. I gave up on the radio and decided that, even though Ch16 was displayed on the illuminated dial, there had to be a loose antenna connection. I was not about to climb under the dashboard and sort through the tangle of wires that I could see hanging below (clue number five…failure to check the radio before departure).
The heat from the sun was still intense, so I asked my wife how much drinking water remained. Thankfully she said we had two full bottles and I joked that we might need to ration the water. I then told the Captain that if we didn’t get rescued soon we would probably need to barbecue him! He nervously laughed and continued to try and make another cell connection.
I could see a distant, menacing buildup of storm clouds and heard a rumble of thunder. This was not what we needed at this moment. I approached the center console and quietly asked our Captain if there was any nearby shallow water and if he had any charts on board? He again shrugged his shoulders and continued to try and get a cell connection (clue number six…no charts aboard). As a fifteen-year veteran on the water, I decided it was time to act.
“Where is your fuel tank?” I asked. Moments later I unscrewed the cap in the sole and peered into the dark hole, listening carefully for the sloshing of fuel. “Do you have a stick?” I asked. He found one, under a seat, that had obviously been used in the past as a dipstick. This spoke legions about the reliability of the fuel gauge…clue number seven. We were relieved to discover that the dipstick showed a few inches of remaining gas. Apparently the combination of running twin outboards at full throttle and the additional morning trip that the Captain took to pick us up had consumed more gas than anticipated. We were now sucking dirty fuel from the bottom of the tank.
I closed the fuel cap and found the fuel filter hanging off the transom. There was absolutely no possibility of examining its contents because the relentless sun had turned the filter’s clear glass an opaque yellow (clue number eight…poor engine maintenance). The filter’s location, hanging over the transom above the water, made disassembly and cleaning potentially disastrous (clue number nine…poor installation planning). I found the bulb in the fuel line, attempted to squeeze what might have been fresh fuel into the system, and asked our Captain to then try and restart one of the engines.
The outboard sputtered to life and shook like Jello. Without asking me the captain shifted into gear and, of course, the engine immediately died. “OK”, I said pumping the fuel bulb again, “leave it in neutral”. He restarted the engine and this time followed my directions to slowly increase the revs. Despite some blue smoke, and a potentially flooded carburetor, the engine became smooth and then roared to life.
We motored with one engine and I asked him to raise the other out of the water to reduce drag and improve our speed. Later, feeling a little more confident, I asked him to drop the other engine and try to start it again. After much shuddering it smoothed out and we were soon back on plane with my hand on the fuel bulb in case the engine started to misfire again.
We made it safely back to the dock. The thunderstorm dissipated as fast as it had formed. We disembarked and said good night to our fellow passengers, who to this day are, no doubt, totally unaware of the danger we faced that evening. Had night fallen, with no running lights, no working radio or cell phone, and the possibility of a thunderstorm while grounded, we too could have ended up like the crew of the Indianapolis with no one searching for us until we were well overdue.
Our day on the water in paradise was memorable for the South Pacific’s natural beauty and for boating lessons re-learned:
- Big problems on the water generally are caused by a series of smaller problems
- Boating safety is a matter of preparation and experience
- Equipment needs to be checked before leaving the dock
- In order not to run low on fuel, plan to return to the dock at trips end with a one-third full fuel tank
- Examine and repair/replace worn equipment
- Never leave port without relevant marine charts and adequate “local knowledge”
- If you are a guest aboard, ask questions when you arrive and be aware of not only basic safety procedures but the location and working order of basic equipment
More great articles like this can be found on News From The Bow.