Visiting Easter Island (Boat-Based)

A Perilous Getaway To Hanga Roa

The heavy swell thunders ashore.  

Unsettled weather moving in. I took this picture in daylight, but most of this story happened after dark—in fact, not just dark but pitch black.  

After we finished the first movie, we were about to start a second when we heard a terrible crunching clunk from forward and felt the boat lurch. It was a horrible noise, not something you want to hear your boat make. It sounded and felt like we had run aground, but as we rushed on deck, we saw we were in 40 to 50 feet of water and weren't near the shore. We tried to figure what made the noise, and David discovered the cause: our anchor chain snubber lines had parted. This let the boat drift back a few yards in the wind, then the boat was brought up short by the anchor chain. This caused the crunching noise as well as the lurch.

Our anchor chain snubber consisted of two lengths of rope tied to a shackle that was attached to the anchor chain; the other ends of the ropes were secured to the mooring cleats on either side of the bow. The main purpose of the snubber is to transfer the large forces from the anchor chain to the very sturdy mooring cleats on the bow, thus preventing the large forces from reaching the windlass (which is not designed to handle such large forces). Another purpose of the snubber is to convert sudden shock loads into smooth forces that are less stressful to the boat; that's why the snubber is made from stretchy rope instead of non-stretchy chain.

It would be very bad to operate without an anchor snubber, because heavy loads could be suddenly placed on the ground tackle, as well as the bow roller, chain stopper, and windlass. The stress from these shock loads could distort or break the chain, bend or break the chain stopper, and could even pull a windlass right off the deck. After all, the boat is only made out of fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) and although FRP is reasonably sturdy, it doesn't handle point loads or sudden shocks well—in other words, lots of force instantly applied to a small area, like the mounting bolts for the chain stopper or windlass. To provide more strength for things like mooring cleats, you normally install wide metal backing plates on the mounting bolts to spread the load over a bigger area, but even mooring cleats should still be protected from shock loads by using a snubber.

It was getting dark and due to the rain and overcast, it likely would be a very dark night. The wind had shifted all the way around, past west, past southwest, and was now south to southeast. This turned our previously safe and secure anchorage into a dangerous lee shore. The wind was picking up and causing chop, and coupled with the generally southerly swell, this was causing the bow of the boat to plunge and rear as it rode the waves. Since the snubber wasn't working, whenever the wind and waves extended the anchor chain to its limit, the chain would suddenly tighten and apply a shock load to the anchoring gear. This also would cause the boat to lurch and the anchoring tackle made a crunching clunking sound. If this happened when the bow was rearing up, there would be an extra huge crunching clunk that very soon could break some of the ship's important gear, not to mention letting the boat blow down on rocks and be wrecked. In other words, we were in a predicament: dark night, rough water, windy lee shore, broken anchoring gear—what to do?

David decided that we would have to retrieve and repair the snubber, so Marcie started the engine and motored slowly ahead to relieve the strain on the anchor. David used the foredeck footswitch to operate the windlass and pulled in the chain. Once the snubber shackle was just in front of the bow roller, David leaned over the bow and unclipped it, then uncleated the other ends of the snubber lines from the mooring cleats. Improvising quickly, David tied a couple of new lines to the snubber shackle, clipped the shackle to the anchor chain, then secured the new snubber lines to the mooring cleats. He let out about 15 to 20 feet of chain which allowed the snubber lines to take up the strain and removed the forces from the bow roller and chain stopper. The new snubber started functioning and the stretchy rope smoothed out the shock loads and transferred the anchor chain forces to the mooring cleats; the crunching noise stopped.

Unfortunately, the pitching of the boat and the force of the wind and swell caused the improvised snubber to fail quickly. One small line parted in a few minutes and the other sturdier line chafed through in a half hour. We were forced to repeat the snubber replacement operation, all of the steps, with all the risks to boat, gear, and crew on a rolling pitching boat anchored off a rocky lee shore on a dark and stormy night. It was no fun, but we did it again, because we had to.

A half-hour later the replacement snubber failed, too. Once the violent motion of the boat was transferred directly to the foredeck anchoring gear by the taut anchor chain, the forces became immense. The chain stopper was jerked so hard that it bent; it was jolted so often that its mounting holes began to enlarge and the chain stopper shook and twisted as the boat lurched in the swell. At one point, the boat was heaved to the side by wind and swells and a huge side-load force was applied to the bow roller with a massive crack and crunch. We saw later that the bow roller frame actually twisted slightly sideways and cracked the thick teak toe-rail adjacent to the bow roller.

We were now in a real predicament. Our snubbers were failing repeatedly, our anchoring gear was being overstressed to the point of breakage. It was a dark and stormy night, with squalls, high wind, waves, swell, rain, and the boat was tenuously anchored in 50' of water off a rocky lee shore. The boat was now in danger, and therefore so was the crew. Problems had been compounding and intensifying so that now, big problems could happen. The chain stopper, bow roller, or windlass all could be seriously damaged or wrecked. We could wind up losing the anchor and rode. Or the anchor could be wrenched from the bottom allowing the boat to drag down to the rocky shore.

It's hard to convey how rapidly this situation developed and intensified to the point of real danger. One minute we were sitting below enjoying an afternoon movie, and a scant hour later we were all on deck in the blowing wind and rain, in our foul-weather gear, wet and chilled, on the pitching boat in a squall, wondering how do we save the boat as the boat's anchoring gear is slowly but surely wrecked by the immense forces of nature. It was such a dramatic and sudden turnaround in our situation—from pleasant relaxation to fighting to save the boat—I don't mind saying that I was scared. After all, boats do sink and crews are lost, because accidents do happen. And we were now in a situation that had the potential for disaster—not an impersonal disaster that you read in the newspaper, but a real, personal disaster, here and now, to me! I was scared.

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