The story begins at the breakwater alongside the Water Front Café in Port Villa harbour, Vanuatu in September 1999.
I was in Vanuatu to deliver a Roberts 65’ back to New Zealand. Brian Loundes, the owner of Relember (not a spelling mistake) had called me and asked if I’d help him bring the boat back to Aotearoa N.Z. from the Central Pacific. I had previously delivered the boat to Fiji. It was a good opportunity to escape the end of the winter at home and skive off to the sun. That and a decent wallop of cash was all the convincing I needed. I flew up and good old Bri’ was at the airport to meet me, with his bloody bags! “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you mate, he says, I’m not coming. You’re on your own with Lyla.” I’d hardly digested that, as he was walking through the departure gate, when he called back, almost as an afterthought, “Oh, and Lyla, wants to you drop into New Caledonia on the way. See Ya”.
Bloody, ambushing bastard. But hey, there are worse things you could be paid to do!!!!!!
I hooked up with Lyla at the boat and all was sweet. She is a great woman, very capable, a good navigator and an all round excellent crew member.
When I got to the boat, it was blowing hard, circa 35knts and I wasn’t going anywhere. I spent the next few days re-acquainting myself with the boat and her systems and drinking and eating at the Waterfront Café. Life was good. There were a number of Yachts holed up in the harbour waiting for the strong south-easterly winds to abate, before turning for home at the end of the Pacific cruising season.
The general rule is boats from Australia and New Zealand head for the South Pacific around the end of April, early May. They cruise the amazing Islands of Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and New Caledonia then head home around the middle of November before the cyclone season begins. The cruising season is determined by the effective sea water temperature. Cyclones or Hurricanes as they are called in the Caribbean and Typhoons as they are called in the South China Sea, only form when the sea water temperature is above 26 degrees Celsius. Now, as a general rule, you can get a ‘Fuck Off’ storm at any time of the year but their prevalence is much more likely when the water is warmer, as the evaporation conspires to energize the weather patterns. Golden rule; go home before things heat up! We’ll see more and stronger cyclones as our climate crisis escalates.
So, I’m hanging at the bar, trading sea stories with Andre Morris, the owner of ‘Sam’s Toy Box’, a gorgeous 75ft Aluminium Ketch from Coffs Harbour, Australia when a distress call came in from the yacht ‘Sea Toy’.
Those of us who had watched ‘Sea Toy’ head out into the gale three days previously weren’t particularly surprised to hear she was in trouble. Firstly she had ‘beat out’ into the sleet and murk, only to return about 12 hours later with her headsail flapping in tatters to show what a thrashing she had experienced. Then after a day to repair both ship and crew and with no change in the weather, she had raised both her anchor and her courage and set out again. The skipper had a court case in Aotearoa NZ to attend and let his timetable overwhelm good sense. Maritime error 101.
‘Sea Toy’ is a gorgeous Warrick 65’, dig the marketing pictures here. A big, solid, well foundered vessel but no matter how big you are, who needs a beating, right? Her S.O.S. call came in at 8pm, reporting that of the three crew on board, both the skipper and one other were incapacitated with an unknown illness and the remaining crewman was stuck on the helm, as the autopilot had given up the ghost. He had limited experience and needed assistance to return to Villa, bearing in mind that the island is surrounded by an outer reef with limited entrances and it’s blowing a gale, at night, after a hideous day at sea. All the conditions for a disastrous outcome.
Via V.H.F. radio communications we arranged to rendezvous at the entrance through the reef.
Andre and I set off in ‘Sam’s’ centre console, rigid hulled inflatable. We stuck our heads around the corner of the inner harbour and all we could see was foam flying past at warp speed. We bashed our way towards the outer reef, through sleet and foam, nearly colliding with the unlit channel marker and unable to hear each other for the roar of the wind. It was …………crap.
Finally ‘Sea Toy’ loomed out of the dark. Bloody hell, now it dawned on me that I was going to have to jump from the relative terror of the rubber ducky on to the pitching deck of the yacht. We came alongside, with Andre manoeuvring the ducky close enough to off load me but not so close as to be crushed by the boat as she crashed through the waves. The trouble in these conditions is that a 32TON vessel reacts differently to a 100kg tender (tender by name, tender by nature).Andre was a great boatman, he came along side and when ‘Sea Toy’ went ‘Bow Down’; I launched myself ‘Belly Up’ from the R.I.B. landing on the foredeck like a beached flying fish. I made no attempt to land on my feet as just getting on board would be considered a successful flight and I didn’t want to run the risk of stumbling overboard. I literally kissed the deck, scrambled to my unstable feet and proceeded aft to the obvious delight of the helmsman. From there on in it was a pretty straight forward trip in. I took control of the boat and followed a G.P.S. course into Villa. I nestled Sea Toy into the anchorage, medevacked the crew off to the hospital and returned to “Sam’s Toy Box ” and attacked Andres’ store of single malt whiskey.
The next day we were being regaled by the cruising fleet on the bravery/ stupidity of the previous evening adventure when I met a guy called Roger Lindsay. This character and another were in the process of removing the headsail foil from a yacht moored at the breakwater. The foil is the track that allows the head sail to slide up the stay. It is attached to a drum ‘Furler’ which allows you to simply roll the sail either in or out. To lower this equipment on to the deck you must be careful not to bend or kink the foil. I lent another couple of hands and after, Roger offered to buy me a beer and wanted to hear of our previous evenings rescue. We formally introduced each other at the bar and I said, ‘I used to know a Roger Lindsay in Matamata’. He replied a bit nonplussed, ‘I’m the only Roger Lindsay in Matamata’. It turns out that I had worked for Roger and his great dad, 24yrs previously when I was fifteen. Small world ! We’d both changed considerably.
A day or two later we set off, when the wind had abated and moved around into the North – East and we had a beam reach down to New Caledonia. On arrival Lyla and I hung out at the Port Moselle Marina. We went into town and ate great French/ Polynesian cuisine, visited the Gauguin museum and the cultural centre and re-charged out personal batteries before beginning the downhill, seven day voyage to N.Z. I next saw Sea Toy in June of the following year at West Haven Marina in Auckland and I wandered over to introduce myself to the new skipper, Ian Farrell. It turned out that she was being prepared for a trip to Tonga via Minerva Reef and Ian needed additional crew. I signed up. Yay, here we go again.
We set sail from N.Z. on the 7 July on the back of a low pressure system that had just crossed the Tasman Sea. If you leave after the low has passed over your position, while the winds are still strong you get a slingshot effect off the top of North Island with the benefit of knowing that the winds will abate as the low tracks East. On the first two days we had brilliant sailing conditions, with 25 – 30knt winds aft of the beam with a following sea. This ladies and gentlemen is as good as it gets. Sea Toy loved it and galloped ahead swallowing up the miles. After five days at sea we began to close on South Minerva Reef and the crew became excited about landing seriously big fish. Minerva Reef (North and South) are these amazing 2000m high mountains that rise from the ocean floor and stop exactly at sea level. That’s right, they are 2000m high mountains but they start at the bottom of the Ocean so are surrounded by seriously deep water.
About five miles before we reached the reef, Ian brought the boat head to wind and we furled our sails and we got into fishing mode and drew forth our weapons. In preparation for the impending battle, Mal’, Sea Toys owner had traded a small bucket of money for a correspondingly small bucket of shiny, sharp and bizarre fishing paraphernalia. If you throw enough of this stuff off the back of the boat you may get kippers for supper. With weapons drawn and armour worn we set off on our quest. Mal’ looked particularly fetching in a cute little gimbled number from Black Magic, which looked like a joint design effort between Versace and Genghis Khan making him look like a sea born gimp.
Moments after the call to arms we heard the familiar chortle of a smoking reel threatening to explode into its 100 individual parts. Mal mounted his trusty steed and set forth with lieutenants at hand to fight the good fight. The brief was for me to retrieve the other lines and for Bruce to wield our magnificent gaff. Six foot of tropical hardwood, strong but supple with a shepherd’s crook of stainless steel, honed to a spine chilling point. We could see the direction the fish was running and Ian maneuverer the boat accordingly. Bruce and I began to retrieve the other lines we had out to avoid a tangle up, when the inevitable happened. Another hook-up. Two more fish, rampaging in two different directions. Result? Unmitigated chaos. We had three smoking reels, singing and in 10 seconds had lost enough line to hog tie Africa. I started grinding on my rod but bearing in mind we had only one gimble, the butt of my rod was jammed in my scrotum. Every time I leaned back to load the rod, my eyes watered. Whilst it was undoubtedly exciting that is not my idea of fun. Mal’s fish is approaching the boat and not too happily. Bruce was hanging from the safety rail by his toe nails with this enormous gaff between his teeth and a crazed look on his almost submerged face. Mal issued a deep throated grunt and an occasional cry of despair as the line was given and taken, then a shriek of delight at a flash of silver and yellow was seen near the surface. Bruce is lunging at the ducking and diving fish and I kept telling him “It’s a freakin ‘gaff, you ‘hookim’ with it you don’t beat them to death.’ Then the tip slid under and into the fish and we had ourselves a monster yellow fin Tuna lunging out of the sea. Finally it was over the rail and a bird in the hand. By now, I’m bawling my eyes out, my scrotum is stretched down to my knees and my arms are aching. With a gimble your legs do all of the work but when you’re simply holding onto the rod it’s all arms and appendages.
Onward the brave and then my fish gives up the ghost, completely different to Mal’s. I could still feel the weight on my line but all the fight was gone out of it. On cue it comes meekly to the surface. Another monster of a Yellow fin with a huge head and ……….. Fuck all else. Some gorilla of a shark had just snaffled 20kg’s of sashimi and all I had to show for it was the head. Pretty damn impressive though. These two fish would have been much the same size when whole and Mal’s weighed in at 33kg’s. There was evidence of two bites having been taken from my fish and I guess each one contained about 12kg’s of prime Yellow Fin Tuna. Little did we know that this was a foreboding of things to come.
This photo is from an article published in ‘Boating New Zealand”
We began the run into South Minerva. The entrance through the passage into the interior of the reef is relatively narrow, with coral ‘bombies’ to port and a series of sub-marine rocks below, in the centre of the channel. The water is so crystal clear it feels like you are sliding over the top of these rocks but it is an optical illusion as they are 20m below the surface. The reef is a figure of eight shape, about five miles long. The massive mid ocean swells are breaking on and surging over this reef and ‘venting’ out through this narrow passage hence there is a five or seven knot current running depending on how big the ocean swell is. To enter safely it is necessary to hit the passage hard and fast, not normally how you would navigate a narrow entry!!!! I once entered the lagoon at Lady Musgrave Island on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia and was stopped dead in the passage by the outgoing surge. I’ll never make that mistake again!
Ian slid Sea Toy expertly through the pass and into the clear aquamarine waters of the lagoon. There was already one other yacht lying inside the reef and we hoped we weren’t invading their space. When we had entered the lagoon, I had taken up a position up the mast at the first ‘spreader’ to better check for obstructions and I waved out to the two divers who were sitting on the surface as we went by, happy to see someone else after five days of nothing but Pacific rollers. We set our anchor a polite distance away and cracked a few beers and began to relax. When the divers returned to their boat I hailed them on the V.H.F. and spoke to their skipper, Christian. He was a classic, tough old South African and I gave him a good natured ribbing about his rugby team being beaten by the Aussies. I asked them about their success with the renowned Minerva crayfish but to my surprise they said they were spear fishing! About an hour later they weighed anchor and moved to the north – east of the reef about a half mile from our position, stopping nearby for a chat on the way.
After they had left we launched our tender and had a dive for crays but the current was relentless and the famous Minerva reef crays were nowhere to be seen. We’d have to settle for sashimi, sushi and Thai coconut curry. The deprivations of the sea!
The next day dawned but slowly for us. We were drained from five days of two hour watches and we were moving pretty slowly. We began to prepare the boat to return to sea but the transom door refused to close and I spent the next several hours attempting to fix the problem. These hours proved significant for Christian.
Finally we were ready to get underway. When the anchor was raised I went forward to seal the hawser as Sea Toy fell away from her position and we were underway. Without the technical problems we had encountered we would now have been 30mls away enroute to Tonga. As we turned towards the channel entrance to the reef, I saw Donellas inflatable approaching us at speed, driven by Jeremy, one of the divers. He broadsided the R.I.B. to a halt in one movement. He didn’t need to say anything; the side of the tender was covered in bright red blood. I’ll never forget that sight. The inside was awash with pink water. I remember just one thing he yelled. “Shark Attack”. I declined to get into the inflatable as I needed to assemble the first aid kit, so Ian gunned Sea Toy’s engine to begin the trip to Donella.
To leave New Zealand, in a N. Z. registered yacht you must have a Cat One clearance certificate, a requirement of which includes a comprehensive medical kit. I grabbed anti biotics, both powder and pills, syringes, needles and the dreaded narcotics. Gauze and rubber gloves and bandages, bandages and some more bandages. At this stage I was close to a blind panic and started guzzling Rescue remedy.
Eighteen months previously while delivering a boat from Noumea to Auckland; I had a fall and smashed my chest into the companionway, cracking a couple of ribs. I spent the subsequent three days holding my chest in excruciating pain, whilst continuing to sail home, all the while wondering what was going on inside my chest. I vowed to learn more and on my return enrolled in a Coast Guard marine medical course run by Pro Action Medical. I think what follows is called ‘The Deep End’.
We reached Donella and I jumped from the bow of Sea Toy onto the blood encrusted tender then scrambled onto their boat. The cockpit was awash with undiluted blood which was beginning to congeal and it was thick and I mean thick. I simply wanted to run. There wasn’t so much as a rock for 300mls and all I wanted to do was run! Then my training kicked in and I remembered; Stop, Think, and Assess. Stay calm, compression and elevation. Christian was completely coherent. I asked him about his pain level and he said he was ok. Good old shock temporarily masking the coming tsunami of pain. He said he was ok but he didn’t look it, this was one seriously tough African. I slipped an oral pain killer under his tongue. His crew had wrapped a T-Shirt around his fore arm and then bandaged over the top but the leaking blood had saturated both and I was sure it was still leaking. They all said there was a major wound under the bandages. The shark had got both of his arms and he had lacerations to hands, wrists and forearms. We slung a rope over the boom and I tied his arm up above his head. He didn’t flinch. We then strung his feet up and curved his body to keep what was left of his blood concentrated in his torso. We had him strung up like a chicken.
After checking all the wounds I could see, I positioned Ryan on the other side of Christian with both hands around the top of his bicep exerting moderate pressure and said, “When I take off the bandage, if it spits at us, clamp it harder.”
I wasn’t convinced it was the right thing to do, but I knew that when I made contact with the real medics, I would need to be able to describe what the damage looked like. Carefully I exposed the wound, took one look at it and simply crapped myself. The major damage was a 150mm long bite where the sharks teeth had sunk in down to the bone and then ripped the flesh backwards. It was ragged and ugly. I lifted the flap of flesh and could see a long section of forearm bone and all sorts of stuff I hadn’t seen before. There were teeth serration scars on the Radius and Ulnar bones, coming from the underside of his wrist was what looked like pasta with a hole in the centre. I had always thought veins were bluish but that’s only when they have blood flowing through them. I know better now. I tried to make a picture of it in my head so I would be able to describe it to a doctor later on the satellite phone on board Sea Toy.
I tried not to dwell on the fact that the nearest piece of land was 300mls away and I nearly burst into tears. I folded the flap of flesh back down after dusting the wound with anti-biotic powder and moved on. I layered gauze over the major wound and started wrapping with a finger splint bent into a deep “V” to compress down above the severed artery. There was not a lot of blood coming out of such a gaping wound and there were some pretty major blood vessels lying ripped and torn but when you figure how much was in the ocean, on the dingy and awash in the cockpit, I figured the main reason was he probably didn’t have a hell of a lot left. When I first starting wrapping the blood just soaked through but as I got more and tighter layers on that stopped and the further away I got the better I felt. We stripped off Christian’s shredded wetsuit and I said I wanted to get him down below. He simply stood up and walked down the companionway. We were in awe. We lay him down and began to rehydrate him slowly.
I kept asking him questions to monitor his level of response and his answers were always consistent. I think he thought I was an idiot, repeating myself and I wasn’t sure he had much faith in me but that didn’t matter as I had very little in myself. I said I was going back to my boat to call the doctors and would be back as soon as I could. His crew were two young teenagers but they had behaved admirably. There initial care had saved Christians life, now it was my turn. It was a particularly short queue. There were seven people in a 300nm radius. Ian had anchored about 80m away. It seemed like a long trip and my mind was racing. On board I picked up the Saturn-m sat phone. Handy eh? Without it we would have been in deeper trouble as SSB communications had been patchy for the previous few days. I called John Farrel, Ian’s father, who was also a skipper who had sailed to Minerva and would be well prepared to coordinate help. Shortly thereafter I was contacted by Taupo Marine Radio and I was patched through to Doctor Pierre Bradley at Wellington Hospital. I relayed the events that had transpired. He was a real pro reassuring me that what we had done so far was correct and giving me a new set of tasks. I returned to Donella with a new sense of purpose and confidence only to be freaked out when I saw Christian again. The initial adrenalin he had been getting by on had subsided and he was going into shock. He was pale and greyish, considerably weaker and worst of all the blood had soaked through the dressing. I had thought we were on the road to recovery and things were stabilizing but we had only just begun. I added more crepe bandages, concentrating on tension at the top of the wound area and topped it off with a dense adhesive bandage. I asked Christian how he was feeling and what the pain was like and he said he was ok and it was manageable but his answer lacked conviction and his former strength was abating. I tried to reassure him but he saw right through me and we all began to realize how serious our collective situation was becoming. After administering more pain relief, I high tailed it back to Sea Toy with Jeremy driving. I told him I thought Christian’s life was in the balance and that he needed to keep him still and his arm and feet elevated. Jeremy was visibly rattled as I don’t think he realised how serious things were. I reported back to Pierre that the bleeding had continued and that I had re bandaged. He asked me to stand by for a minute or so then came back and began asking me a series of questions about my medical skill level and I didn’t like the direction the conversation was heading in. I had told him that I had a Coastguard Marine Medics Certificate but I could feel the water beneath my feet getting deeper and deeper. Pierre told me to go back to Donella and if the bleeding was at all apparent through the new bandaging to apply a tourniquet at the arm pit. I nearly started crying. ‘That’s a huge call you’re asking me to make’, I told him. His reply was “If the bleeding continued Christian would die. Better to lose an arm than your patient.” All the good feeling that had been established between us evaporated and I thought “You come and bloody do it, he’s not my patient”! It was an illogical stress response. I couldn’t have got through this without Dr Pierre Bradley, nor would have Christian.
I’m a trained yacht skipper and am supposed to remain cool and calm at all times but it was all turning to gobshite. It was getting late in the evening and word came through from the New Zealand Navy ship Resolution that she had responded to our distress call and was motoring at best speed to our position and would be on station at 2200hrs the following day. Over 24hrs from now. I put Jeremy and Ryan on two hour watches over Christian with instructions to contact me if there was any deterioration in his condition or if there was any sign of blood coming through the dressing and I decided to get some rest myself. I was feeling shattered and needed to get my head together as tomorrow was going to be another long day. I got out my medical training manuals and prepared for what I thought would be his inevitable heart attack, fortunately it never happened !
I lay the hand held V.H.F. beside my pillow with the volume on full so I would hear the lads hailing me if I was needed. I dreaded the thought of a call as it would only mean one of two things. That we were losing Christian or that he was bleeding. Neither bore thinking about. I knew that if I approached Christian to apply a tourniquet there was no chance he would allow it. I began plotting to knock him out if necessary, what a fuck up.
That was what I was thinking as I slipped off to sleep. I awoke with the dawn and the realization that I hadn’t been needed. The sense of panic from the previous day was lessened. I hailed Donella on the V.H.F. and was answered immediately by Ryan with the news that there was no new bleeding and Christian had passed a comfortable night. Narcotics rock! Things were looking up big time. There wasn’t much more we could do for Christian except maintain watches over him and so for some light relief I staged the inaugural Minerva Reef Golf Open. The place was predominantly rough coral heads sticking out about 1metre above sea level at low tide but there was a small coral sand beach which we used as a bunker. We adapted one of the ships buckets as a chipping hole marked with the Gaff and on top a Squadron Burgee as the flag and we had chipping practice on Hole One. ( I had brought a couple of old golf clubs with me as you do when heading to sea).
This little beach was adjacent to a small channel running through the coral . As we dorked around chipping, I swear, a small Black Tipped Reef Shark meandered through adjacent to us only a few meters away. That got a wry look amongst us I can tell you. Moments before we had been rescuing errant balls from this shallow little channel!!!
Hole two was a driving competition where we blasted our store of golf balls into the Pacific Ocean ( Mea-culpa) from the top of the Shipwreck Cairn built by the Australian Navy.
In the early sixties a sailing trader carrying 17 Tongans had been wrecked on the reef and they were lucky enough to be able to survive 144 days in the hull of a previously wrecked Japanese fishing boat. The Aussies, gawd love’m, had concreted together blocks of coral and old engine parts and what have you, with a piece of pipe sticking up from it to hold on to, if ever the same thing happened again.
It was a ‘two hole’ open. Yeah, Yeah, all right—Giz a break! With a total population of seven, having an ‘open’ at all was an achievement in itself. I met someone years later in Tanna, Vanuatu, who was telling a story about finding a golf club at the Cairn and they were blown away to meet the ‘caddy’ who had left it behind!
HMNZS Resolution motored over the horizon and hailed me on the S.S.B. and we began to prepare for her arrival. Minerva Reef was well outside her operational region, she had no chart of the area and would be arriving after dark, a far from ideal scenario. We had on board a Max – Sea navigation program which was state of the art at the time and I devised a method where I would mark all of the outer points of the Reef with way points which would give me latitude and longitude which I could relay to the Resolutions navigator. All he had to do was connect the dots to have a chart of the reef. We gave them our exact position, that of Donella and the original way points we had used to enter the passage through the reef. They now had a chart with a route. Resolutions plan was to stand off the reef and launch their R.I.B. which would motor through the reef entrance to our position. For the previous few days, the weather had been settled but as each hour passed and our rendezvous approached the weather deteriorated, to the point that when the Resolution appeared, we had intermittent rain squalls and winds gusting 20-25knts.We listened with anticipation as the ship deployed her R.I.B. and the crew with medical team approached and then entered the reef.
The trust they showed in following our route on a windy, rainy night, through choppy seas was a tribute to their training and command. The R.I.B. beat to windward the 1.8nm to the Donella and the first tangible assistance in 30 hrs of genuine stress and worry was at hand. I hailed the commander of the Resolution at 2100hrs and handed over responsibility for my patient, which he formally accepted. It was a defining moment. The next morning after transferring Bruce over to the Donella to supplement their crew we set off for Nukualofa, two yachts in tandem.
Minerva Reef fell away behind our stern but not from our minds. Later that night during our watches we experienced a total Lunar Eclipse in clear blue skies and calm seas. We all lay on our backs on the deck of Sea Toy watching as the earth drifted between the sun and the full moon. It took one hour for the earth’s shadow to fully block out the moon, it was covered for two hours and then another hour for it to uncover again. We went from having this amazing moon shadow on the water, slowly dull away, and then equally slowly, return as the moon came back into the suns path. Whilst it was blocked out there was still a light ‘Halo’ where we knew the moon should be. It was absolutely magic and was like a massive reward for all we had been through.
We murdered Mal’s single malt. He didn’t mind. We arrived in Nukualofa harbour two days later with the Donella a further half day behind us. The resolution had come and gone, depositing Christian at the local hospital where a combination of Tongan, New Zealand and German doctors had stitched him back together again. The arm looks a bit ‘munted’ but it still works, it’s still attached to his body and he’s still alive. All good.
Soon after the Resolution returned to Nukualofa and I was invited to a official Tongan government event on board where we were feted and treated to fantastic Tongan cuisine.
‘Minerva Reef and the story of the 17 Tongans’, It’s an epic tale of maritime glory and skill, If you can find a copy read it, it’s epic.
In 2007 I told the story of the shark attack and the golf game at the Port Resolution, Tanna Pirates Rally and was awarded the Island Cruising Association “Best Nautical Braggers Award”
As we left Minerva we played the Finn brothers song “Shark Attack” for some gallows humour;
Thanks for spending the time to get to the happy end. I can feel a book coming on.