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