After eight fun-filled days on Niue, a remote island between Tahiti and Tonga, Travis and I needed to get moving again. One of my oldest pals from Newport Beach, Jim Ripp, was meeting us in Tonga June 18, and our June 11th departure was none too premature for the 265 mile trip, particularly since we would cross the International Date Line during the passage and lose a day.
While on Niue, we met a lot of wonderful people, both fellow cruisers and locals, the latter mostly employed as SCUBA instructors. There were two dive companies on the island, and we had friends from both of them. I had as my instructor a wonderful South African girl, Roxy, who took me on seven dives in the course of my obtaining my Advanced Scuba certification. She and her 3 colleagues from Buccaneer Divers joined us for dinner on “Nor’easter” after taking Travis and me on a night dive near our boat’s mooring field. Travis befriended Pauline, from France, and Carrie, a Canadian, both working for Magical Dive Niue, who also came on board for cocktails one night, but the boat was rolling so badly, their experience was less than pleasant. Pauline began turning green within minutes of boarding, so I picked up a stern mooring buoy to get our boat facing the waves, enabling our guests to stay on board long enough for a respectable cocktail “hour.”
The day before we were to depart for Tonga, Travis asked if we could take Pauline with us. They had become better acquainted during our last two days on Niue. She had just quit her job with Magical Dive and wanted to ultimately catch a flight to New Zealand, from which Tonga would be a good starting point. While I could certainly understand Travis’s motivation for having this lovely lady with a great personality on board, the fact that she had never set foot on a sailboat before the previous night’s cocktail party made me reluctant to subject her to a potentially hazardous open ocean passage spanning two nights. I figured she would be sea sick the entire time, but Travis said she knew the risks, and having worked as a stunt double as well as being proficient in MMA fighting, she was no sissy.
As it turned out, Pauline’s first sailing experience was, for me, the most challenging of my fifty years in yacht racing and cruising. We left Niue at 1630 hours last Tuesday, hoping to time our Tonga arrival for Friday morning. Light airs were forecast, with 2 meter seas, which was no big deal. At sunset, sailing in pleasant conditions, I grilled pork chops, which we ate on deck. So far, so good. Pauline had taken some sea sickness pills, and was in good spirits. The night passed uneventfully, Travis and I standing four hour watches while Pauline slept. The next morning’s weather was fair, and we were sailing along comfortably. About noon, Travis hooked a big marlin, which after jumping multiple times, shook the hook, and later a gorgeous 4-foot dorado, which he subsequently cleaned and cooked for lunch around 1400 hours. By then, we had 25 knot winds and seas were building.
Before we could even do the lunch dishes, squalls began to appear everywhere, and the wind started to literally howl. Our doppler radar showed solid red blobs surrounding us, not just isolated squalls. Travis came on watch at 1400, and I tried to sleep, but the wind’s pitch, which was scary even below decks, kept me on edge. After 3 hours, I went topsides to check on Travis, who reported he had steady 40-50 knot winds with 56 as a high. That’s what we sailors call “Force 11,” or “Violent Storm.” A few more knots of breeze takes you to Force 12, or “Hurricane.” There is no Force 13. I expected a few huge waves would build from such high winds, but we still were flying a reefed main and sailing 9 to 10 knots under good control. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, we decided to go to 3 hour watches due to the high winds, and Travis went below to check on our guest as I took over.
I wasn’t on the helm more than fifteen minutes when a monstrous breaking wave appeared in the distance, stretching across the seascape and bearing down on us like a freight train. It came from an angle more forward than the other seas, and I knew there was nothing I could do to avoid it. My safety harness was attached to the boat, all hatches were closed, but I truly thought, from the height of that wall of water, that while I might not survive its impact, but the boat would be OK. Just before it hit, I stuck my arms though the wheel’s spokes, took a death grip on the steering pedestal rail, assumed a wide stance, and figuring I’d be underwater for a while, took a deep breath. The wave slammed into the boat like a truck hitting a Volkswagen Bug. The last thing I saw was the boat surfing sideways with the keel nearly on the surface, but then I was inundated, missing whatever happened next, but quickly found myself standing knee deep in a flooded cockpit, and to my immense relief, the mast was still standing. Travis soon poked his head out of the hatch and exclaimed, “Boy, am I glad to see you!” It was mutual.
Pauline and Travis had been on opposite sides of the main salon at impact, and Pauline, who was on the windward side, was literally launched across the room, hitting her head, but sustaining only a minor scalp wound. As an MMA fighter, she wasn’t about to whine about that. I was impressed. Travis told me the starboard side of the boat suddenly became the cabin sole, then rolled back to its rightful spot. I was probably safer on deck, and was treated to one of the most awe-inspiring sights of my life.
I was extremely worried that there were more rogue waves to come, so we took down the main and deployed just a sliver of the jib to keep us under control, going 5 knots deep downwind. As night fell, the seas continued to be large, but nothing dangerous. Rain and high winds continued throughout the night, and we kept our 3-hour watch schedule, since we had to hand steer in those conditions. Travis and I were wet, cold, hungry, and sleep-deprived, but knew that all storms eventually end, as did this one around dawn. The sun finally came out, the wind died, and we motored the last 50 miles to Tonga, arriving 1700 hours, just in time to miss being able to clear customs. We picked up a mooring, tidied up the boat a bit, and began celebrating our safe arrival. The party lasted until almost midnight. We were positively exhilarated.
The next day, we learned that a 7.5 magnitude earthquake had occurred between New Zealand and Tonga the night of our rogue wave. Given that it came from a different direction than the wind waves, and that it was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen while sailing, it might have been a tsunami. It’s a good thing we were in deep water, or it would’ve been a lot worse.
Since that memorable event, several people have asked me what I was thinking as the wave bore down on our tiny craft. The one thought I had, other than “Hang On,” were the words of Lars Strom, who was the Swan factory’s chief naval architect. He once told me at an Agent’s meeting in Pietarsaari, Finland that Swans were built to withstand the worst the sea can conjure. His exact words, which continue to reassure me: “If you can stay on board, you won’t die on your Swan.” Since we survived a tsunami, I guess Lars was right.