Hiva Oa, and the Ups and Downs of Anchoring

Posted by John

May 30th turned out to be a day devoted to the ups and downs of anchoring. Here’s a little story to explain.

When we had gone into the bay on Tahuata, we were happy that the anchor had grabbed so solidly. We were tired, and the solid anchor meant we were done for the night. But something was different. It had never made a sound like that before. It had never dug in so quickly, either. Usually it drags across the bottom before sinking in and holding.

Over the next couple of days I had a nagging unease about it that wouldn’t go away. Our anchor watch showed that we were staying within one of the tightest circles I had seen us stay in. The anchor was just not moving. It was not dragging, or flipping and resetting. Nothing. Another boat came into the bay and asked us how deep we were because their depth sounder was not working. We told them, then added, “Great holding.” They ended up anchoring near us.

When the other boat left a few days later, we watched with curiosity as they spent a lot of time looking down in the water toward their anchor. My uneasy feeling continued, but they eventually got their anchor up and were on their way.

We were enjoying a nice Memorial Day (which, at the time, we didn’t realize was Memorial Day), when a voice—“Hey, Mysticeti!”—called up from the water. Looking over the side, we saw a snorkeler. He told us that our anchor was jammed into a crack under a rock and looked like it might not come out. Well, that was it, I guess. My uneasiness was now validated. Not that that made me feel any better.

In the conversation that followed, we told him that we were off in the morning for Atuona on Hiva Oa before taking off for Tahiti. He’d been to Atuona and said we’d need to use both bow and stern anchors there. Wonderful, I thought. Now I have two new things to worry about. We had tried to use a stern anchor at Ua Pou and failed. We asked about the fuel dock. He said we’d have to use jerry cans.

The anchor windlass that came with our boat is a nice one. At the time it was originally purchased in the 1990’s it cost as much as a compact car. It is almost guaranteed to bring up your anchor, or so the brochure seems to say. I decided to trust it, so I could get some sleep.

I woke up before sunrise and couldn’t wait to get the day over with. By 7:15 the engine was running, and by 7:30 the windlass was pulling chain up off the bottom. We were in 40 feet of water with 120 feet of chain out. Two years ago Robyn and I had laid all the chain out on the dock at Port Ludlow and attached markers (colored plastic zip ties) at 50 foot intervals. Now I knew that once the 50 foot marker was down the hole and into the chain locker the anchor would be well off the bottom.

Looking down over the bow I could watch the chain coming from quite a way down. It looked too tight to not have a heavy weight on it. I was pretty sure that the anchor had not been broken off and left behind on the bottom. I was optimistic, just looking for the first confirmation. But as the chain kept coming up, I saw what looked like a big ol’ sack of something draped across the anchor. It had brought the rock up with it. This, I was not prepared for.

With the windlass stopped and the rock just breaking the surface, I stared at it. It was an old piece of dead coral, covered with patches of brightly colored algae. (At least that’s my story.) I tried to push it off with a boat hook. Nope. I tried to pull up on it and flip it off with the boat hook. Nope. It was wedged tightly between the plow part of the anchor and the shank. The boat hook wouldn’t do a thing, we needed some ideas.

The first idea was to get a loop of rope around it and try to lift it off the anchor. That did nothing. The next idea was to get a big hammer, raise the rock up closer to deck level, and whack at it with the hammer until it broke off. We’d have to think about that idea a little longer. Next idea was to send someone into the water to run a rope through the lifting ring on the top of the plow part of the anchor, then winch that up higher than the chain end. That would both flip the anchor over, and change the forces on the anchor and maybe open the gap a little and let the rock fall out.

Since Robyn is the strongest swimmer of the three of us, she got the job. It was early still, before she normally gets up, so maybe she wouldn’t be clear headed enough to protest too much. She did a great job. Perfect. And not only that, the plan worked. The rock silently returned to the bay before I even noticed it was gone. We were off for Hiva Oa and the sun was barely up.

Hiva Oa and Tahuata are next to each other across a channel a few miles wide. We didn’t have far to go, but we don’t fall for that idea anymore. We were ready for just about anything. Then we went around the end of the island and saw a gray funnel cloud—a water spout. That was a new one. We weren’t expecting that. It was several miles ahead of us, and possibly on the other side of a ridge, maybe even in the bay we were headed to. We watched it dissipate, and thought sure we’d had enough excitement for one day. Of course, we were wrong.

The bay at Atuona is pretty small. It is a potato patch of water; shallow, muddy, choppy and rolly, with a river flowing into it at the end of the bay. The edges are solid rock with the occasional blowhole shooting water high into the air with a “boom” when the surge hits. It is also packed with boats trying to get at least a little shelter from the swells. Lovely. But there is a fuel station there. We’d have to jerry-jug it. There is no dock except for the supply ship wharf, which is not fit for a recreational boat. We knew the supply ship had just been there and so shouldn’t be back for a while. That meant we should be able to anchor just about anywhere.

We decided on a spot next to another boat about our size. We set our bow anchor, but to keep from swinging into the boat next to us we’d definitely need a stern anchor too. We learned from our last attempt that we can’t just drop a stern anchor on a chain. First, the anchor has to be set; and second, a chain scraping along the rudder is not a good thing.

Julie’s plan was to remove the chain from the anchor and attach a long rope rode instead. Then the dinghy would be launched and rowed around to the stern, where the anchor would be lowered into the dinghy. The the anchor would be rowed out in the dinghy, at an angle behind the boat, and lowered to the bottom. Then it would be winched back toward the boat until it set, and then the stern would be pulled so that we were parallel to the boat next to us.

Okay, first, launch the dinghy the fastest way by hoisting it up by a sail halyard and swinging it over the side of the boat. Since the dinghy was upside down on deck, we’d just attach the halyard to the tow rope already fastened to the bow of the dinghy. We’d raise it to a vertical position, twirl it around so it was right side up, then push it out over the water and lower it in. We’d done this many times before. Apparently, this time was one time too many.

The tow ring on the dinghy is held by a hypalon patch glued to the front of the dinghy. This was the day that the glue decided to let go. Down came the dinghy on top of me. Okay, okay, I’m okay, but it’s time for another plan.

Julie can make this big, old full keel Westsail turn around in its own length. It’s taken a lot of practice, but people notice. When we left the La Cruz Marina in Banderas Bay, a local marina employee in mirrored sunglasses watched her turn the boat 180 degrees completely around in the fairway between the docks. When I looked at him, he smiled, gave a thumbs up, and said, “Bueno.” Now, while Robyn and I were getting the dinghy in the water, she was using these skills to keep us, with the bow already anchored, from swinging into the boat next to us. It took two tries, but she also got the anchor, long rope rode attached, rowed out and onto the bottom, while I winched the stern straight. It seemed to hold on the second attempt.

As the afternoon wore on, we watched as more, and bigger boats came in to join the crowd. This takes the record for the closest and biggest crowd of boats we’ve ever been squeezed into. I hope it works out. Definitely enough fun and excitement for one day.

2 thoughts on “Hiva Oa, and the Ups and Downs of Anchoring”

  1. Holy poo! Great story, getting a dingy dropped on you can’t feel good John (smile). In a tight bay like that, I don’t suppose you could pay out all your bow chain, drop the stern anchor and then motor/winch your way back to a 3 to 1 or whatever and then pull in on the stern? (Armchair sailors suck, I imagine you’ve tried this)?

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