Visiting Easter Island (Boat-Based)

Hanga Roa Stopover

The small-boat harbor at Hanga Roa. It's only suitable for dinghies or small skiffs. You can see the extra lines used to secure the boats against the considerable surge that comes into the harbor.  

In the late afternoon we arrived at Hanga Roa and anchored in the usual spot, then called the Armada to report our arrival. It was very choppy and there was quite a bit of swell, more than when we first visited Hanga Roa.

The three of us had a discussion about schedules—what we would like to do and how to arrange all of our activities over the next few days so people could do what they wanted but we could keep the boat manned. We decided to divide the day into morning and afternoon shore sessions and alternate back and forth—I go ashore, David goes ashore, etc. Marcie gets to go ashore every time, because of her command of the language, and so she can shop for provisions. One problem was the local custom of closing stores from mid-afternoon to early evening; whoever got the afternoon shore visit might have trouble shopping.

For today, it was already late afternoon but the light lingers due to the odd time zone, so there was enough time for a short shore visit. This time slot was offered to me, and I decided to go ashore to take pictures of the moai in the shoreside park that we could see from the boat. Marcie and David had already visited this park on their first trip ashore (which had been a provisioning trip but the stores were closed).

I loaded my backpack and at the last minute decided to double-bag my camera and put my wallet in a ziplock bag, too. David drove the dinghy to ferry me ashore, and we took the usual route: stay out of the breaking swell by running parallel to shore until you reach a certain set of rocks in front of the harbor channel. Then you turn left and make a beeline for the harbor, keeping to the left side of the channel. This is the magic route that is supposed to avoid all the breaking swell.

Unfortunately, today we weren't so lucky. Due to the extra heavy swell, the normally non-breaking waves were breaking in the harbor channel. With a powerful enough boat, we could have raced ahead of the breaking waves and avoided trouble. However in a ten-foot inflatable dinghy with a four-horsepower outboard, we just weren't fast enough. While still a ways from the harbor entrance, out in the zone of breaking swell, a big breaking wave caught up with us. The rolling hump of the wave lifted us up and pitched the dinghy forward. Then the mass of white water on the crest slammed into us and slued us around, then neatly and quickly flipped us over. One minute I was sitting in the dinghy, feeling us being lifted up and seeing the white water rushing towards us from astern, the next instant I was underwater, looking up through murky bubbly water at the daylight overhead. I wasn't wearing a PFD, and in fact I had declined to use one when Marcie queried me just before we left the boat. But out of habit, while sitting in the dinghy I routinely held on to the dinghy painter. The main reason was to keep the painter from falling into the water and fouling the outboard motor propeller. But it was also one more thing to hang on to during a bouncy dinghy ride. As I gulped a mouthful of seawater and frantically clawed for the surface, I found that I still had the dinghy painter in my hand. I was able to pull myself up and over to the overturned dinghy and hang on to the shackle that attaches the painter to the hull. I was wearing my purple daypack, and in retrospect, I decided that when I was dumped into the water, the backpack momentarily retained some trapped air which provided a little flotation and helped bring me to the surface faster.

Once I got to the dinghy, David also swam over, and we both treaded water and hung on while the overturned dinghy rode the incoming waves. Luckily, I don't remember any more waves breaking over us. We were still some distance from shore and from the harbor entrance, and although the waves tended to push us towards shore, there was no guarantee they would deliver us to the proper part of the harbor channel. They could just as easily dash us to pieces against the jagged basaltic rocks on either side of the harbor entrance. Minutes earlier we had watched from Nine of Cups as swell broke against those very rocks with great clouds of spray.

To guide us in the right direction, David prepared to swim to the harbor entrance while towing the dinghy via its painter, a very difficult and tiring task. Luckily, just at this point, a panga passed by on its way into the harbor carrying a woman diver back from an ocean dive. (A panga is a small outboard-powered fishing skiff.) The panga driver saw us hanging on to the overturned dinghy and asked if we were OK. David asked the driver if he could tow our dinghy into the harbor, which he agreed to do. The panga driver was very anxious though, and kept telling us to hurry, hurry. Although the panga was a bigger and heavier boat with a powerful engine, while he was assisting us he was dead in the water in the zone of breaking waves. Even a panga could be harmed by a breaking wave—it probably wouldn't flip or sink, but it could be swamped or the motor could be drowned. The driver tied our dinghy painter to a stern cleat on the panga then deployed a small metal swim ladder against the hull so we could climb into the panga. Then he towed the still upside-down dinghy into the inner harbor, moving slowly due to the resistance of the inverted transom and motor case being dragged through the water.

When the panga reached the very shallow water in the inner harbor, David and I hopped out into the water which was only a few feet deep. We easily managed to flip the dinghy right side up, despite the extra weight of the motor. Once it flipped over the inside was free of extra water, except for some water that poured out of the outboard motor case (not a good sign!). We trudged through the shallow water and pulled the dinghy up on to the small sandy beach. David tried pulling the motor starting cord, but it wouldn't budge. This meant that the engine was full of seawater so the piston couldn't move in the cylinder. The engine would need considerable repair work before it could be used again, if ever.

We decided to walk over to the shoreline where we would be visible to Nine of Cups. In case Marcie saw us flip the dinghy, I wanted her to see the two of us together so she would know we were OK. We also saw the panga driver tying up his boat, and we approached him to see if he could tow us back to Nine of Cups. We had to check with his boss at the Orca Dive Shop, but he agreed and didn't ask for any money, which I thought was very considerate. The panga driver untied his boat and maneuvered in the shallows to present his stern; meanwhile David and I slogged through the water and pulled the now right side up dinghy over to the panga and secured the painter. David was able to boost himself up into the panga but I had a hard time and the swim ladder was no longer available. David and the driver came over and helped pull me up into the panga—not very graceful, but at least I got in.

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