Visiting Easter Island (Boat-Based)

A Perilous Getaway To Hanga Roa (continued)

Being scared is OK as long as it doesn't prevent you from taking appropriate action to handle the situation. We decided that under the circumstances, it was too risky to remain anchored in the cove. We had to get the boat underway and head out to sea. Off the coast we would have lots of maneuvering room and could circle around the island to get to the lee side and avoid the worst winds and waves. We needed to raise the anchor all the way and motor out of the cove.

Easier said than done.

Marcie and I worked on the foredeck while David manned the helm. As David slowly motored ahead, Marcie ran the electric windlass to retrieve the chain. Again, easier said than done. First of all, it was pitch black, windy, rainy; the bow was plunging and rearing and would sometimes take solid water over the bow. We were repeatedly thrown off balance by the wild motion of the boat; much of the time I moved around on my hands and knees on the wet, slippery decks. I was wearing a safety harness that was clipped to a jackline, so in theory I couldn't be washed or thrown overboard, but I didn't want to test that theory.

We first had to recover the remains of the broken snubbers, pieces of line that were still attached to and in places actually wrapped around the anchor chain. Meanwhile, the chain itself was crunching and banging as it took sudden loads. Sometimes the chain would jump out of the windlass gypsy (the cogged wheel that reels in the chain) and several feet of chain would suddenly fly over the bow roller with a clatter, pulled by tons of weight. You had to have utmost respect for the chain under these conditions, because it could easily rip off a finger in an instant. Or if your harness tether became fouled in the chain, it could pull you into the bow roller and overboard. Meanwhile, on the lurching wet deck, with jumping and crunching chain, we had to unravel the old snubber lines and detach them from the chain. Which we did, safely and efficiently. Scared or not, everybody did their jobs, did them right, and the anchor was retrieved.

I don't want to make it sound too simple, though, because there were complications, as usual. For example, the windlass has a clutch that is deliberately a little slippery. The windlass is powered by an electric motor, and the motor has only a certain amount of power. If you ask it for more power than it can deliver, the motor can be damaged or the circuit breaker can trip. To avoid these problems, the windlass clutch is designed to slip if the force on the chain is greater than the motor can handle. And it frequently was—the motor would run but the chain wouldn't be pulled in—or would even be pulled backwards, overboard—because the force was too high, causing the clutch to slip. In this case the helmsman has to drive the boat slowly ahead using engine power, into the wind and swell, creating slack in the anchor chain and reducing the force so the windlass can reel in the chain. This process requires coordination between the foredeck and the helm, so the boat motors ahead only when necessary and in the right direction. Tonight, due to the darkness and the noise of the wind, rain, and waves, communication was difficult. A shouting person on the bow couldn't be heard in the cockpit, and vice-versa.

Another complication is that the chain can sometimes jam the windlass from below. As the windlass retrieves the chain, the chain falls through a hole in the deck and piles up below in the chain locker. When retrieving lots of chain (in this case about 250 feet), the pile of chain can become tall enough that it reaches the top of the chain locker. At this point, no more chain can fall into the chain locker and the incoming chain backs up and jams the windlass. Therefore, somebody (usually me, which I don't mind) has to periodically knock over the piles of chain in the chain locker to make room for more chain. On Nine of Cups, you do this by opening an on-deck hatch that gives you access to the forepeak locker (which is a large storage compartment with the chain locker at the forward end). Leaning into the locker (and using a flashlight, even in daytime), you reach in with a boat pole and shove over the chain pile. Then you use the boat pole to guide the incoming chain so it fills all the space in the chain locker. So tonight, once we had removed the old snubber lines and shackle, I was handling the chain as Marcie operated the windlass and David manned the helm.

We managed to raise the anchor, but once the anchor is retrieved and dangling from the bow roller, you usually have to pull the chain really hard by hand to get the anchor into its stowed position on the bow roller. Due to the anchor's great weight and the peculiar "force geometry", the windlass clutch usually slips at this point and you have help it out. Tonight, the bow must have plunged and been smacked by a wave, because all of a sudden, the big 110-pound anchor just hopped up on to the bow roller and neatly stowed itself. All we had to do was tie it down.

Marcie and I gathered up all the snubber pieces and headed back to the cockpit; I scuttled along on hands and feet, hanging on for dear life. Now, David started feeling his way out of the cove and out to sea, motoring into the wind and waves. Again, easier said than done. It was pitch black, windy, rainy, and with heavy incoming swell. There was only one light on shore, a navigation light marking the entrance to the small boat harbor at the head of the cove. This was a rare luxury, an actual navigation light. Without that light, it would have been literally completely black all around us.

So how did we know which way to go? We have a compass in the binnacle, but a compass only tells you which way you are pointed. It doesn't tell you if you're drifting to the left or right, which could happen even though you remain pointed in the right direction. We also have a radar, but it's not very useful for very short distances (in our case, about an eight of a mile). Instead, David used our GPS, which had stored a small map of our route into the cove when we had arrived two days ago. David steered the boat so our current position on the GPS map followed the same route, but in reverse (that is, from our anchored position back out to sea). Again, easier said than done. Due to the limited resolution of the GPS map, the boat could deviate from the route by several boat lengths before it would register on the tiny GPS screen. On one side of us, though, the rocks and surf were close enough that we could get into trouble before it was obvious on the GPS map. We wound up guiding ourselves with the GPS map plus a relative bearing to the shoreside navigation light; David followed the map and Marcie and I watched the light as it eerily moved around in the pitch-black void.

As we motored ahead we frequently checked the depth sounder, which confirmed we were heading into deeper water. However, at one point, the depth sounder showed a very low reading (about eight feet!) which persisted for a few seconds. This was very alarming but it had to have been a spurious reading; by now we were in water over 100 feet deep.

This is an "artist's conception" picture that I created on the computer to show what the navigation light on shore looked like from the boat. It was pitch black all around with heavy rain, and as the boat pitched and veered, the light seemed to eerily move around in the void.  

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