In this ex­cerpt from Wendy Hin­man’s book, Sea Tri­als, a fam­ily of four runs aground on a re­mote reef in the South Pa­cific

SAIL - - Contents - By Wendy Hin­man

Septem­ber 19, 1974, 0400. The 40ft sloop Vela rocked gen­tly, lines creak­ing with the steady mo­tion of fol­low­ing seas. City lights glowed on the dis­tant hori­zon like a bea­con mark­ing their des­ti­na­tion: Suva, the cap­i­tal of Fiji. After five days of sail­ing from the tiny is­land na­tion of Tonga with lit­tle but the change of watch to mark the pas­sage of time, ev­ery­one in the Wil­cox fam­ily ea­gerly an­tic­i­pated land­fall.

Fiji would be the fifth South Pa­cific is­land na­tion they vis­ited in the year since they’d sailed away from San Fran­cisco’s Bay Area, a year filled with fas­ci­nat­ing cul­tures and geog­ra­phy so dif­fer­ent from their home in Cal­i­for­nia. With an over­cast sky, get­ting star sights had been a chal­lenge the last few days, but con­ser­va­tive cal­cu­la­tions pro­jected they’d ar­rive at the har­bor en­trance later in the day. Still, ev­ery­one slept fit­fully the night be­fore land­fall.

Dawn Wil­cox blinked away sleepi­ness as she be­gan her watch du­ties. She made a care­ful scan of the hori­zon be­fore set­tling into the cock­pit with the woolen army blan­ket the four of them used

dur­ing night watches. One light stood out against the hazy glow on an oth­er­wise fea­ture­less hori­zon. She found it hard to tell how far away it was since depth per­cep­tion at night is a chal­lenge, es­pe­cially when a light is blink­ing on and off. Be­sides, she couldn’t al­ways trust her vi­sion. She rubbed her eyes and ad­justed her glasses, then de­cided to con­sult the charts.

Be­lowdecks, she fum­bled for a flash­light, switched it on and ri­fled through the charts on the nav­i­ga­tion ta­ble. Her hus­band, Chuck, heard an ur­gency in the rustling pa­per inches from where he lay. “What’s wrong?” he asked, squint­ing into the light beam.

Dawn didn’t an­swer im­me­di­ately. She scoured first one chart of the area, then an­other. She flipped back to the first. Hmmm. Nei­ther showed a light­house or a lighted buoy with those char­ac­ter­is­tics. What was she see­ing? Feel­ing the weight of Chuck’s eyes on her and the ques­tion that hung in the air, she felt her face flush. Prick­les of sweat beaded up on her nose, and her glasses be­gan to fog.

“There’s a light on the hori­zon that I can’t find on the chart.” As she said those words, their im­pli­ca­tion be­came clear: They weren’t where they thought they were. Just how big a dan­ger that posed was un­cer­tain, but she felt a ris­ing anx­i­ety and a quick­en­ing in her chest.

Chuck sat up and rubbed his eyes. “OK, I’ll take a look.” He climbed out of his bunk and bent over the chart as Dawn re­turned to the cock­pit. With the com­mo­tion around him, four­teen-year-old Garth stirred. Some­thing was hap­pen­ing. He might as well get up in case he could help. His younger sis­ter, Linda, lay awake a few feet away in the quar­ter-berth, feel­ing the al­ter­nat­ing pull of grav­ity and buf­fet­ing waves, steady as ever.

What Dawn saw when she re­turned to the cock­pit was far more se­ri­ous than an un­charted light. An ominous line of froth stretched from one end of the hori­zon to the other. White­caps crashed where wa­ter piled against a rocky bar­rier that lurked be­neath the sur­face. A roar filled her ears. Panic shot through her. Reef!

“Break­ers!” she yelled through the open hatch­way, her voice high and pinched as fear con­stricted her throat. “Turn the boat! Start the en­gine!” Chuck yelled back.

His words from a few days ear­lier mocked him. “This ce­les­tial-nav­i­ga­tion stuff is a piece of cake,” he’d said. So far on this cruise their nav­i­ga­tion had been flaw­less, but in life there are no guar­an­tees. He hoped they’d have time to al­ter course.

Dawn twisted the key to start the mo­tor. It came on in gear, pro­pel­ling the boat for­ward even faster. It fu­eled her sense of ur­gency and quick­ened her heart rate. She fum­bled to re­lease the self-steer­ing wind vane to al­ter course, her dex­ter­ity slowed by ris­ing panic. Time was crit­i­cal, yet her hands be­trayed her.

Garth and his fa­ther lunged for the com­pan­ion­way, leav­ing eleven-year-old Linda stir­ring be­low. “We need to get the sails down!” Chuck shouted as he pulled him­self into the cock­pit, Garth fol­low­ing. With the wind be­hind them and the boom all the way out, they’d been mak­ing good time all night. Now that same wind was hurtling them to­ward the reef. Rollers surged from be­hind, adding to their mo­men­tum.

Garth grabbed the wood frame around the hatch and pulled him­self up. He’d just reached the top be­hind his fa­ther when Vela lurched vi­o­lently, throw­ing him into the sharp edge of the hatch. Too late. In an in­stant, Vela smashed head­first into fangs of co­ral. The boat paused for a mil­lisec­ond. The bow dipped sharply, then ground for­ward with a groan. An abrupt halt to their for­ward mo­men­tum shoved Dawn into Chuck. Then, just as quickly, Chuck crashed back onto Dawn with the full force of his weight as Vela lurched again. Be­fore they could scram­ble up, a line of waves lifted the hull and tossed it onto the reef as though it were a child’s plas­tic toy. In a sin­gle mo­tion the hull piv­oted ninety-de­grees, and Vela rolled on her side.

A wave swept the now-side­ways Vela over dra­mat­i­cally, dip­ping the boom into the swirling froth and smash­ing it onto the reef. A crack like a shot rang through the air. The wooden boom ripped from the mast. White fab­ric bil­lowed for a sec­ond on the wa­ter’s sur­face. A wave cas­caded over the hull and filled the sub­merged sail, adding to the force that drove them far­ther onto the reef.

Dawn grabbed for the now-use­less wheel to pull her­self up. “Hang on, Linda!” she yelled—a lit­tle late. Linda screamed from be­low.

Garth and Chuck rushed for­ward. They crabbed their way across the an­gled deck, grab­bing for cleats, line or blocks—any­thing to pull them­selves along the un­even and vi­o­lently shift­ing sur­face. The deck was slick with wa­ter, flow­ing in a tum­ble of di­rec­tions all at once. Garth moved at light­ning speed, surg­ing past his fa­ther to the bow. In a flash of adren­a­line, he let go of the jib hal­yard and yanked sail­cloth into the bow net­ting, rid­ing the bowsprit like an out-of-con­trol bronco. Then he crawled aft to help his fa­ther get the main down.

Crouched at the mast Chuck strug­gled to hang on as he un­tied the main hal­yard. He and Garth pulled against the force on the sail while the boat ca­reened wildly. Deaf­en­ing surf thun­dered over and

around them. Wa­ter rushed against their bare skin and tugged at their cloth­ing, threat­en­ing to wash them into the churn­ing mass of wa­ter that tum­bled around them and the sharp co­ral hid­den be­neath. Garth blinked away blind­ing salt­wa­ter. Chuck gulped, then coughed briny wa­ter from his mouth and nose. His wa­ter-shriv­eled fin­gers ten­u­ously grasped for pur­chase against the slick sur­face and the pull of grav­ity.

An army of waves marched re­lent­lessly against the hull, pick­ing up the boat and driv­ing it far­ther onto the jagged co­ral. Each bar­rage sent men­ac­ing plumes of foam fly­ing. Vela lay at a fifty-de­gree an­gle, shift­ing and shud­der­ing with each suc­ces­sive wave and moan­ing in protest as the reef tore at her wooden planks. The twenty-ton ves­sel could not with­stand the pow­er­ful, con­flict­ing forces—im­mutable reef against a per­pet­ual on­slaught of waves.

Thir­teen months into their long-planned cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, the world of the Wil­cox fam­ily was rip­ping apart around them.


Vela lay on the reef with her star­board side fac­ing the sky. Waves crashed over the hull and deck, as though she were on the edge of a wa­ter­fall. Tons of wa­ter pushed against the hull, splin­ter­ing the wood as it ground over raw co­ral. The boat shud­dered and vi­brated. The air was filled with the noise of crack­ing wood and the thun­der­ing sounds of cas­cad­ing wa­ter.

Chuck’s mus­cles screamed in agony as he gripped the wooden mast to brace him­self against the vi­o­lent mo­tion. In the dark­ness he could barely see his clenched fin­gers. All around him white foamy wa­ter tugged at his body and clothes. Garth tight­ened his grip around the stay, try­ing to hang on. Sur­rounded by tum­bling seas, he felt as though he were caught in a vor­tex of con­verg­ing hy­draulic forces. Suc­tion held Vela onto the reef and trapped her in roller back­wash in the path of a chain of break­ers. Waves pum­meled them one after an­other in rapid suc­ces­sion, crash­ing down in a tu­mult of foam and spray.

Dur­ing a lull be­tween waves, Garth and Chuck picked their way aft on all fours, wa­ter thrash­ing against their bod­ies. Garth’s shriv­eled fin­gers seemed no match against the hard metal fit­tings he used to pull him­self along the an­gled deck. For a brief mo­ment a flash of the bea­con lit the deck.

Dawn tried to slow her breath­ing. Move­ment from be­lowdecks re­minded her of Linda’s haunt­ing scream. She loos­ened her grip on the wheel to crawl for­ward and see if Linda was all right.

Be­lowdecks, Linda’s world had turned side­ways. The screech of grind­ing tim­ber and the roar of surf out­side were am­pli­fied in the cav­ernous in­te­rior. Would she be buried alive in this wooden tomb?

In the dark, Linda picked her way across the cabin, which now sat at a dis­turb­ing an­gle and was lit­tered with their be­long­ings. Dis­ori­ented, she couldn’t find the steps to the cock­pit. In a panic, she grabbed the edge of the com­pan­ion­way and pulled her­self through the open­ing, slid­ing into the cock­pit next to Garth as a wave cas­caded over them and smacked her in the face. She screamed.

Dawn fished for the life­jack­ets and made ev­ery­one put one on. With the deck slick with wa­ter and sur­faces they nor­mally used to brace them­selves now ver­ti­cal, at any mo­ment one of them could be hurled over­board or be­come in­jured if they lost their grip and went fly­ing. Waves slammed at the hull and splashed onto their faces. For­tu­nately they were to­gether and un­in­jured—at least for the mo­ment. The pe­ri­odic strobe of the bea­con—now closer— flashed on their fright­ened, strained faces. The use­less en­gine throbbed softly. Chuck reached down and turned it off.

The Wil­cox fam­ily’s ves­sel, Vela, un­der­way

(From left) Dawn, Linda, Chuck and Garth Wil­cox in San Fran­cisco upon their re­turn in July 1978

Vela DE­CEM­BER 2017

lies for­lornly on the reef

Vela in bet­ter days

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