6/25/2012 Middle of the Night Micro Burst Melee.
What do you get when you mix together a pitch black night, fifty or sixty cruising boats, a smallish anchorage filled with reefs and bommies with sudden high winds and torrential rain? Bumper Boats, broken bits and a hard ending to a great day.
The day had been fabulous: the 2012 Pacific Puddle Jump Fleet gathered together to celebrate successfully crossing the great Pacific Ocean. The party had actually kicked off on Friday, then the Tahiti to Moorea Sailing Rendez-Vous on Saturday and finally the big finale on Sunday of Tahitian feast and a full day of friendly competition. We started at 9:30 in the morning and ended well after dark. There was outrigger canoe racing, a coconut husking competition, a banana stalk carrying foot race, the giant rock carrying contest and a huge team tug of war. Guitar and ukulele played throughout the day and accompanied the tradition Tahitian meal. There were pearls for sale, palm basket weaving lessons, a pareo tie-dying station and piles of coconut, pineapple and pamplamouse to nibble on. After the meal the finals of the outrigger canoe races brought out the serious competition and the fan frenzy. Then more music and a troop of costumed dancers. Bill and I finally called it a day and returned to Island Bound around six but the party rocked on for hours. Around 9:30 I headed to bed and the next thing I know I'm awake and listening to first the sounds of rain and then the engine starting. Definitely not a good sound when your know your anchor is down and set and you thought you were tucked in for the night.
The rain sounds seemed to fill the cabin as I slid into shorts and a t-shirt and was roaring by the time I open the companionway door. The wind howled through my ears and the rain fell in sheets across the dodger and bimini top as I climbed the ladder to the cockpit then had to turn right back again to the navigation station to switch on our instruments. When I stepped into the cockpit the world was pitch black around me then broken by flashes of lightning and a background hum of chaos. At the wheel Bill answered my obvious question of "what the &%$@?" by telling me he needed me to go out on deck and strip the sun covers from our dodger windows. The wind and rain was so heavy that the moment I stepped out from the cover of the dodger it was impossible to keep my eyes open and I was instantly soaked to the skin but at least now we could see more of what was going on around us.
A microburst had transformed the anchorage into a scene of bobbing flickering lights and hints of boats rolling in the sheeting rain. Bill cautiously motored forward trying to take some of the strain off the windless while we both peered off into the storm trying to make sense of the movement around us. I finally thought to glance at our wind instrument and it was pegged at 43mph! Others reported winds in excess of 50mph further into the mooring field. The VHF jumped to life on channel 16 and a woman's' voice calmly asked for help, from anybody. She's alone aboard and the two boats ahead of her are tangled together and bearing down and the reef just behind her. Voices respond asking for her location but as calm as she sounds she gives only a vague position but voices join in saying they are on the way. Off in the dark I can see several dinghies setting off in search. Another boat sends out a call for help as I sit tracking the first responders in their search for which boat, which reef. Bill and I are forced out on deck struggling off the stern with our own dinghy trying to open the drain plug before our davit's crumple from the weight of the rainwater.
When the winds begins to relent and the rains slow we look out and see that the boats around us are now definitely off kilter from where they had been before but have we moved or have they? We're safe, our anchor held fast but the radio continues to crackle with calls and reports, check-in's and questions. Bill drops the dinghy and sets off to offer help and leaves me sitting alone dripping wet shivering and trying to follow the action around me.
The check-in's begin to tell their stories as everyone wants to know if friends are safe, if boats are settled, if they can breath again. Ahead of us there are small knots of helpers untangling chain and catching drifting boats. Behind me towards the reef is what looks to be the worst of the snarls but it is too dark to really see and too early to really know. Bill returns but it feels like hours have passed. I finally climb into bed again at 12:30. Bill stays in the cockpit, for awhile, just in case.
Behind us the three helplessly tangled boats fought through the wind and rain desperately trying to sort out who was who and where and why. They were saved from serious damage by a dinghy in the water pinched between the two most hopelessly tangled boats. A crew of their neighbors strained and struggled doing there best to divert disaster while the whole mess threatened to careen further downwind into still more boats. One boat had the bow pulpit rearranged and life lines sprung. Another had a mangled wind generator. One couple sat on friends' boat and watched as their own home drifted by, hatches open, water pouring in over bed, upholstery and instruments.
One boat drug anchor for half the mooring field until finally their anchor caught up just short of the outer reef and disaster. A Good Samaritan stepped in to help a single-hander reposition her boat and then reset her anchor safe and sound. Several boats simply drifted off into deeper water leaving owners to resettle deep in the neighboring cove. Another had a toe rail lifted, another scratches and scrapes across varnish. One man literally jumped into the water and swam to a boat in trouble and stepped in to handle the chaos. Another's Captain humbly admitted later to friends who's own sailboat had escaped damage "your boat is the only one I didn't manage to hit on my way downwind."
A microburst is fast and powerful. For those who haven't experienced one they are a very localized column of sinking air that produces damaging divergent and straight-line winds which means the winds roar straight down and then curl outward along the surface. The magnitude of energy in a microburst often leaves significant damage and destruction in it's wake. Huge amounts of energy are suddenly unleashed sending cold air slamming to the ground out of rain filled clouds. Usually aircraft and plane crashes are the first to come to mind in reference to the phenomenon but they are potentially just as devastating to anything in it's path including sailboats. In the dark the microburst came seemingly without warning. In daylight we would likely have seen at least signs of the coming weather disturbance. Mix the element of surprise with a large gathering of boats in an anchorage for the party and problems were inescapable.
As things had settled and the rain drizzled to nothing boats were left resetting anchors late into the night. Some simply left for the head deeper into Oponohu Bay. Many stood anchor watch for hours. In the light of day the stories flowed, people tried to thank the ones who had taken the risk and offered help and the cleaning up and drying out began. Amazingly no boat was lost, no one hit the beach or reef and most importantly no one was seriously injured. It could have been so much worse. Once again the community that we cruisers create stepped up and took care of their own. I wouldn't have wanted to be in any other neighborhood.
Kat Russell S/v Island Bound
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