Lost at sea

It feels so good to enter the safe harbor at Taro after battling howling wind and massive waves in pitch darkness for the last few hours. I am shaking with adrenalin and from the cold of the rain and the wind. But we’re so happy to be here! Not only have we arrived in the Solomon Islands, but we have been able to save two fiberglass boats who were lost at sea. They saw our navigation lights in the darkness and followed us to safe harbor. The first thing the Vaka Hop’e did in Solomon waters was literally to be a light in the darkness and to give hope.

We were eager to get out of Papua New Guinea after being robbed in broad daylight by some drunkards who just showed up to our boat. Sammy and Paul was able to fend them off and they ended up taking only a chair, but it left behind a nasty feeling and an eagerness to get going. Another reason for leaving ASAP is that the weather is about to turn against us. We have been enjoying calm conditions over the past weeks instead of the dreaded southeast monsoon. But it is coming for us and it is time to go to the Solomon Islands before it is too late. As soon as customs and immigration give us the green light, we set off.

The sail from Buka to Taro is long. I had planned to break it up into two or three legs but we all agreed to just go for it. We left in the afternoon and fought our way through the Buka passage in a 4 knots counter current (which is mild for this passage). As we motor into the night we have a bit of wind but it soon dies down. We settle into an easy night sail. Next day is also pretty uneventful with no wind and calm seas. As we approach evening the second day we cross the border into the Solomon Islands and we celebrate by having a little dance party on deck.

As the sun goes down, the wind picks up. We have seen this before, but I had a feeling this would be different. We are able to sail into it, but as the wind keeps picking up, so does the waves, and as they hit us on the bow, they slow us down. We will be arriving at Taro sometime before midnight and I decide that earlier is better. We turn on the motor and motorsail into the night. The wind keeps on building and so does the waves. We take down the mizzen completely and reef the mainsail.

In Papua New Guinea we had our navigation lights off at night because of the threat of pirates. Now, in our first night in Solomon waters, we turn our navigation lights on. Not long after darkness is fully settled, I see a flashlight. My thoughts go immediately to pirates, and I ask Billy if we should turn off our lights. We decide to keep them on, thinking it is probably someone else traveling between islands. Pirates would be pretty stupid to go out in this kind of weather.

We keep seeing the flashlight in the darkness, shining towards us intermittently. At one point they are far behind us and I was relieved that they were just passing. But then, suddenly, they came alongside us. Three guys in an open fiberboat with a big tarp covering something in the middle. Billy says «don’t slow down!» before proceeding to shout out to the people in the open fiberglass boat.

The wind was howling at this point and the waves were rough, big and steep! We had our sails up and it was no way we could have slowed down even if we wanted. They were shouting back and forth and Billy found out there was a child and two women hiding under the tarp, to stay out of the rain and the sea spray. The alternative could have been guys hiding underneath with weapons and Billy later admitted he was scared of getting shot at this moment. Once we established that they were friends, we did our best to help them.

Shouting across the howling wind and crashing waves, trying to keep both boats steady and the fiberglass boat away from taking on too much water, was not an easy task. We tried our best to make sure they had enough fuel and made a jerrycan ready to give them. We were shouting that we are going to Taro. They wanted to follow, because they were completely lost in the sea. The currents were strong and the sea was getting rougher by the minute, and all they wanted was to get to safe harbor.

We were two hours out from Taro and the wind kept being strong. I estimate around a force 6, a little more than 20 knots. The seas kept getting rougher and it was breaking over the boat. I was at the helm and did my best to keep us on course and our navigational tablet dry. Naomi was inside her cabin, praying, while the boys were out on deck. We were all acting a bit crazy, especially Billy who was shouting and joking, having the time of his life. I remember at one point shouting «hold fast!» as a 3 meter wave was breaking over the bow. This is the roughest conditions I have ever been in.

Time goes by and soon we are outside the reef passage. We have had great satellite charts for the whole voyage, compiled by fellow sailors with IT skills. Not once have we had areas missing, but now, in the most critical sail we don’t have clear images of the area we are about to enter. The images are grainy and bad quality. But I have no other choice but to aim for the most blue part and have the boys up on the bow with the flashlight.

We navigate the currents and the reef and soon we are in flat water. The fiberglass boat drives up alongside us and now we are able to communicate more clearly without the sound of the crashing waves all around us. They say a heartfelt thank you for the help. They actually had left Taro earlier in the day, heading to another island, but had gotten lost in the sea and overwhelmed by the weather. They were two boats going together and the other one had also been following us, and came a little further behind. Now that we are in calm waters they leave us after saying thank you one more time.

We end up anchoring outside the town in darkness and rain. It is pouring down at this point, and the wind is even stronger. Naomi is now out of her cabin and proceeds to make hot chocolate and pancakes. What an amazing woman! We all high five and congratulate each other, so happy to having made it safely. The hot chocolate with the pancakes are consumed and then it starts to pour down rain. We’re all soaking wet from previous rain and spray, but it’s late and we retreat to our cabins. Billy so far has been sleeping on deck, but there’s no way he could do that in these conditions, so him and Sammy squeeze into Sammy’s cabin.

The next day, weather is back to normal. I check the forecasts for the previous day and no model had been able to predict what we had gone through. We hope to meet our friends from the night but they ended up leaving without saying good bye. Turns out the drivers were drunk the previous night and too ashamed of putting themselves and their families in mortal danger. It is not uncommon for boats to go missing here in the Solomon Islands without ever being rescued. Thankfully this was not such a time and we were able to help save them from that statistic.

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