French Polynesia, days 26-29, 9-12 May: NE Fakarava anchorage
We stayed anchored in the remote NE corner of Fakarava for 3 days. Anticipating some reasonably strong winds, it would provide the best shelter in the atoll. In theory!
The weather forecast showed something odd. A calm area, where we are, butted up against a zone of strong winds on the edge of a significant high-pressure zone just 20-30 miles south of us. I had enquired to our New Zealand based weather router, Bob: “what happens at that distinct and long interface?“ His reply was “a squeeze zone” where the northern edges of southern ocean’s high and low pressure systems come up against the tropical zone that we are in. Though he never really said anything about how it would be in that interface. We were about to find out.
The squeeze zone was forecast to stay south of us, but it wouldn’t take much miscalculation for it to pop northwards to say hello! However, forecast models showed maximum expected gusts in the zone to be 32kts. Perfectly manageable in our sheltered anchorage if it should get to us.
On the Wednesday evening, 10-May, the winds steadily increased. We went to bed with 20+kts wind and all looking OK. But by midnight it was 30 knots and still increasing. So I stayed up watching, contemplating if I should let more chain out. We currently had our usual 35m out, in 10m water depth. I saw maximum gusts 35kts but by 2am it seemed to be dropping back down again. The wind was directly from the beach (so good wave shelter) and the anchor seemed solid as usual. Hence I went back to bed.
Then, at 2:30am we were woken abruptly by both the anchor alarm sounding and the boat heeling over very strongly. Clearly the anchor was dragging, and we were now side-onto the wind. Cursing that I hadn’t let more chain out I ran into the cockpit and started the engine. At the same time, we were shocked to see the wind had veered 90 degrees and now blowing 45+kts. Lightning flashes were so frequent, like only 1/2 to 1 second between them. It felt like a giant strobe light over the anchorage, lighting up everything with each flash. Good job because it allowed us to see we had dragged parallel to the beach and now very close to the catamaran which had previously been at least 200m from us.
I had to use the motor to try take some pressure off the anchor and at the same time try to keep the bow more into the wind (to give least windage). In the pitch dark with wind soon howling in the mid-50kt range (100+Km/hr) it was very hard not to be disorientated. The chart plotter had so much rain on it I couldn’t see the chart. Oana handed me the iPad, which was better but somehow the screen on it suddenly went black (later found I must have click on camera). So the only good reference was the wind instrument (wind direction), compass and the position of the catamaran we were desperately trying to avoid hitting. The lightning flashes were illuminating it, but the bimini side shades, now wet, were impossible to see through.
Each time we got side-on to the wind Cloudy heeled over so hard it was difficult to keep balance and by now the wind was absolutely howling through the cockpit, and momentarily I wondered: if this is 50kts, what must a full hurricane be like?
Later, the owner of the catamaran told us he was petrified. He could see we were near, and he saw all of our nav lights alternating: white (aft facing), red (port side), green (starboard side). He knew we were yawing all over the place.
The 50-60 kts winds (60kts is hurricane force by the way) lasted for one very long hour, with me constantly muttering “OK, that’s enough now, please just drop your wind, thank you”. Never before have we been so glad for a wind to drop down to 40kts! Finally, when it was clear the anchor was holding, we stopped the engine and I let out another 10m of chain. And let out a sigh of relief. Now I could see the plotter and the iPad. Both tracks showed that I had motored fairly wildly from one side to another.
So that’s what can happen at a squeeze zone interface. Wild turbulent winds and vibrant electrical activity and a lot of rain. Or as Bob later said: “yes, it can get a little wet and windy”. Slight understatement if you ask us!
We didn’t go back to bed immediately. Surprisingly, despite Oana feeding me with dry clothes and waterproofs, I got very cold in the driving rain. So in preparation of another session, I put my wet suit on and then slept in it, in readiness, in the cockpit. But for the rest of the night there were no more surprises. Thankfully.
We had both been very frightened. Probably more so than any other time since owning the boat. But it has to be said Oana was amazing. She stayed totally calm, even more than me, and was always there helping and dealing with whatever I could not, while I fought to control the boat. She’s such a blessing not to panic when things get out of control. So many other would totally freak out, and not surprisingly.
The next morning the sun was out again and wind was gone, like nothing ever happened! Our anchor had dragged over 150m before digging back in. This was the first time for years that we have dragged. Yes, we should have had more chain out, but we also wondered if the anchor chain floats had contributed to the anchor pulling out of the sand.
Whatever, we survived, where several others didn’t. In our anchorage several had dragged. One catamaran at least half a mile, very nearly ending up on the beach. In Fakarava north pass a boat broke its anchor chain and ended up motoring the rest of the night in and out of the channel. He did that because motoring in the lagoon risked hitting a coral head and motoring in the ocean would have been in wild seas. Also next to the northern pass of Fakarava another yacht had been blown firmly onto a sand bank. And in an atoll further east, where they had experienced sustained winds of 60-70kts for several hours, one boat was struck by lightning, losing all electrics and unable to start their engine, they then dragged onto coral and damaged their propeller.
And the shock of the storm was not only to us yachties. That evening we went ashore to a small rustic lodge hotel for drinks. It had a very pleasant atmosphere, but all the talk among guests was of the previous night. Their little lounge building had collapsed in the storm and all the lagoon front huts had been flooded and rained into. The guests and all their belongings got soaked through.
So there you go, “come to the Pacific” they said, “lovely benign weather” they said. Yeah, right!! And this isn’t even the cyclone season!