For me this adventure began 40 years ago on a speck of rock called Finn Island near Sitka, Alaska. In July 1977, I dragged an Atkins-designed Ingrid bare hull up the beach and set to work.
Squandering all my spare time, money and relationships, I finished her out with yellow and red cedar, ballasted with WW II melted-down lead sheathed phone cables and fashioned hollow wooden spars from a drifting Sitka spruce log. Meanwhile, I shifted careers – from professor, to salmon farmer to bureaucrat to environmental consultant – and stashed every penny I could into a cruising kitty.
Cruising began in earnest late July 1993 starting in Seward, Alaska then resting in San Diego, California for a final fitting out before heading across the Pacific to Hilo, Hawaii. For my partner it was 20 days of mal de mer and unrelenting homesickness. She jumped ship upon reaching Hilo as many people did. Some abandoning their boats at the pier and boarding the first plane home. Having spent 16 years of my life getting ready for this I now found myself alone and half way around the world in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A morose recipient of my hopes, dreams, aspirations and desires.
ship wreck #1
Leaving Hilo was the hardest thing I had ever done. Heartbroken, tired and afraid I was immobile and ill for three days, laying on the cabin floor numb with nausea questioning my sanity, headed toward an atoll called Palmyra a thousand miles away.
Reinforced trade winds had blown for over a month. Seas ran high and rough. I didn’t know hurricane Emilia was brewing on my tail. Emilia evolved into the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Central Pacific, the first category 5.
Ignorance can be bliss, if I had known the 1994 Central Pacific hurricane season would set several records including 11 tropical cyclones, four of the most intense ever measured and one which lasted longer and spent more time in the tropics than any ever recorded anywhere on Earth I would surely have never set sail.
The morning of July 7, 1994 dawned clear revealing Palmyra as a smudge on the horizon. A US Coast Guard C-130 rumbled from above. VHF traffic revealed a boat fetched upon a reef last night. A calm voice Coastie established the crew was not in danger and assistance availability. The plane roared off abruptly leaving a quiet hole in the sky. Arriving late I negotiated the pass and anchored in a lagoon just before dark.
Next morning ashore I met Roger Lextrait, island caretaker. The stricken boat was a Beneateau First 35, HEART OF PALM skippered by a single hander Cliff Merritt.
HEART OF PALM was flying down wind under full sail in the middle of the night, her loyal Aires vane on the helm when suddenly she stuck hard. “One minute I was sleeping the next I was on the floor. Cupboards flew open, hammering me with cans of soup, Split my foot wide open. Next thing I knew the boat twirled end-for-end. I knew I was on a reef.” Cliff in a heartbeat went from carefree sailor to despondent castaway. “I didn’t know where I was. I set off the EPIRP. Fortunately, in the morning I found I was not far from shore. I made it to the beach but had no idea which way to go. A right turn and a 10 minute walk would have brought me to the lagoon. But I turned left and it took my half a day beating through bush to find someone.” He found Roger. Soon afterward he met Charlie Smith and Ray Sato from IDIOM who arrived two weeks prior. In that time Roger, Charlie and Ray had become friendly. Roger had taken Charlie and Ray hiking and spear fishing and had enjoyed many meals aboard IDIOM. Charlie gifted Ray five gallons of paint thinner and agreed to fix Roger’s spear gun. But now, with the abrupt arrival of Cliff and HEART OF PALM their friendship was on the rocks too.
Roger led me across the atoll and along a beach to the wreck. He told me Charlie was a bad man and I should try to convince Ray, his crew to abandon him. Charlie, he said was pig-headed. Roger said he believed HEART OF PALM was a total loss but Charlie argued they should pull her off the reef. Roger thought this foolish and dangerous. Something had snapped between them. Afterward, Roger said, be had rowed out to IDIOM to retrieve his spear gun and Charlie had threatened him with a handgun. Roger told Charlie: “you are no longer allowed on Palmyra, if you come ashore I shall consider it a threat and will defend myself. When I do there will not be a piece of you big enough for your mother to identify.”
Bloody strong words I thought as we waded through the shark-infested water out to the wreck. HEART OF PALM squatted on the reef in knee deep water facing seaward. A small swell broke on the fringing reef less than 100 yards away. The only visible damage was a bent rudder shaft and a few deep scratches. On board were Cliff and Ray. Cliff was not in good shape. In addition to his injured foot an old back injury had flared up, combined with his drooping eyes and limp arms he seemed exhausted. Ray on the other hand was young, strong and working hard to salvage gear off HEART OF PALM taking directions from Cliff, who sat on the cockpit coaming.
differing points of view
I climbed up the deck, across the cockpit, down the hatch and sat on the cabin side inspecting internal damage with Ray and Cliff. Having singlehandedly jacked and winched my own 13 ton boat down 150 yards of rocky beach in Alaska I had some experience moving heavy things. I still carried my jacks and winches on board. HEART OF PALM appeared to be half the tonnage of FINN. Although difficult, a refloat seemed possible given the resources. Discussing this with Cliff and Ray I heard the other side of Roger’s story.
Cliff was withdrawn; Ray eloquent. Ray recapped that after the wreck had been discovered Roger said that he would order Cliff off the island on the first available boat and Cliff could take with him everything he could carry. Anything left behind would become Roger’s property. “Now I will get my new mainsail, batteries and a solar panel” Roger had said. Ray said that once he, Roger, Charlie and Cliff reached the wreck Charlie immediately set an anchor to windward and began planning how to pull the boat off the reef. Roger insisted that he was in charge and that everyone must obey his orders. To this Charlie replied, “Roger, I ain’t here to help you strip everything you want off Cliffs boat, I’m here to help Cliff.” Roger and Charlie started shouting at each other and Roger ordered Charlie off the island.
My head swam with accusations. It seemed we would not be allowed to try and refloat the boat, so I devoted myself to the mundane task of hauling Cliff’s gear and possessions across the island to the old village. Roger instructed me to place the most valuable items in his shed rather than in the hut where Cliff had set up housekeeping. Later that evening a number of the more desirable items went missing from the wreck they found Roger wearing Cliff’s clothes and shoes and feeding Cliff’s canned meat to his dogs – all without permission from Cliff.
The next morning, July 9, Cliff said he had given Ray permission to move as much of his gear as possible onto IDIOM. Charlie, Cliff and Ray then planned to sail together to American Samoa, 1,500 miles away. I offered to help. Purposeful activity seemed an excellent tonic in my ongoing recovery from abysmal launch of my own cruise. Ray and I walked out to the wreck and with wrench in hand and sharks underfoot we slid and pried HEART OF PALM’s two cylinder diesel sideways out of the companionway and onto an inflatable dinghy. While Ray pulled the engine around to where IDIOM lay in the lagoon. I loaded up my skiff and continued mule-like hauling of gear across the atoll to Cliff’s hut on shore.
Upon seeing Ray and Charlie hoisting the diesel aboard IDIOM, Roger went into a rage. He challenged Ray: “If you come ashore again, I will consider it a threat and may defend myself against you.” Later, as if to divide and conquest, Roger told me because I helped carry so many things across the atoll for him, I could stay at Palmyra for free.
Later that day a new boat arrived, HO’ONANEA from Hawaii skippered by David, Karin and Ryan Brown and crew Mahesh Cleveland. Roger rowed out to greet and alert them Charlie had threatened him with a handgun. By now; however, I believed there were no firearms aboard IDIOM. Meanwhile, David Brown of HO’ONANEA made it clear he and his family did not want to get involved in any dispute jeopardizing themselves. Although they were sympathetic to Cliff’s plight they remained aloof.
Cliff had been quiet and withdrawn, that night Charlie, Ray and I asked him if he really wanted our assistance. In light of Roger’s behaviour, we felt it was important that he tell us clearly what he wanted to do. Cliff reaffirmed he preferred to sail to American Samoa aboard IDIOM with as much salvaged gear as she could carry. IDIOM was well suited to the task being a 43–foot Garden designed topsail schooner Charlie had built himself. The four of us would approach Roger the next day and tell him our plans.
ship wreck #2
Early the next morning, July 10, Ray spotted Roger rowing ashore from his boat, COUSCOUS with a rifle. Ray, Charlie and I dinghied into the beach and met up with Cliff on shore. Now, the fat was in the fire. Roger flew into a fit of rage and brandished an AK-47. All hell was breaking loose in this place called paradise.
Accusations flooded back and forth. Finally, in an effort to save face, Roger agreed to let Ray and I continue helping Cliff, conditional on Charlie never setting foot on shore again. Roger returned to COUSCOUS with his gun and Charlie returned to IDIOM. Ray and I went out to the wreck and set to work removing HEART OF PALM’s mast and rigging. Using a skiffs we ferried spars across shallows to IDIOM. Upon completion Roger announced IDIOM must leave Palmyra, immediately.
Next morning, disaster struck again. A plea was heard crackling across the VHF. HO’ONANEA first heard ”Does anybody hear us? Could you please come out and tow us in? We sank our yacht in the entrance channel and are floating in our lifeboat.” David and Roger set out to rescue our newest castaways.
Several hours later they returned with Nick and Perri Koffman and their “lifeboat” a hollow aluminium box about three feet square that looked more like a bird bath than anything remotely nautical.
Everyone gathered on the beach to meet the new arrivals. Nick and Perri, recently married, were on their way from Hawaii to New Zealand. Both were tall, lean and healthy. Their boat SUSSWX ROWAN was an old 22-foot fibreglass sloop from England. While beating up the channel toward the lagoon Perri recalled: “I couldn’t see in the rain squalls and gusts of wind, Nick told me not to worry we were almost there.” As Nick lowered the outboard down SUSSEX ROWAN’s transom she hit a coral head in three fathoms of water, sinking in half an hour.
SUSSEX ROWAN looked far more difficult to salvage. HEART OF PALM was high and dry on the reef whereas at low tide SUSSEX ROWAN was entirely submerged with only half her mast protruding from the water. Perri was prepared to accept the loss-after all 22 feet is not much of a boat to lose – but Nick yearned salvage. Charlie thought so too and was ready to launch into action.
At dawn the next day we turned our attention to the new wreck. Perri and Cliff stayed ashore organising a new castaway chateau while the rest of us motored skiffs and dinghies to the scene, Six of us began an endless series of 20-foot free dives to strip the boat of everything that wasn’t bolted down.
It was a strange sensation to float in through an open hatch, gather up a load of clothes, books, and tools then back paddle out again through tangled rigging. What felt almost weightless underwater became heavy and unmanageable as we heaved it into waiting skiffs. Within a couple hours everything was out. Next we tied fenders and floats to gunwales. Empty jerry cans, buckets and pails were inverted and filled by mouth-to-spout resuscitation. Last, we stuffed an inflatable dinghy into the cabin and filled it with air from a scuba tank. Slowly, SUSSES ROWAN lifted herself off the bottom. A few adjustments and the cabin top rose six inches above the surface.
With reef sharks circling nearby, we towed the sunken boat among a maze of coral heads. Our ragtag fleet of push-me-pull-me tenders barely made one knot. Less than 30 hours after she sank we had SUSSEX ROWAN resting on a WW II flying boat ramp. Everyone had worked together. Everyone, that is but Roger. Throughout all of this he was nowhere to be seen. That evening, we found many items stockpiled on the beach were gone. We found them hidden under various old buildings.
The next day Nick placed an underwater patch on SUSSEX ROWAN and we pumped her out. That afternoon another boat arrived, ICE FIRE skippered by Chris Brodie enroute from New Zealand to Hawaii. Chris needed fuel and gratefully siphoned a dozen gallons from HEART OF PALM in exchange agreed to transport several hundred pounds of Cliff’s gear to Ray’s storage locker in Hawaii for safekeeping. We loaded the gear onboard and a few hours later ICE FIRE left.
The following morning we plotted how best to haul out SUSSEX ROWAN. Ray found a length of heavy pipe which Charlie cut into sections with his torch making rollers. I got out my come-along winches from FINN. Only four days after her sinking all hands winched SUSSEX ROWAN onto the hard.
We were ecstatic. After the frustration of not being allowed to save HEART OF PALM it was gratifying to have salvaged SUSSEX ROWAN. Immediately following our success Roger issued a “Continued Violation” notice to Charlie and Ray, stating that they were trespassing on Palmyra and that IDIOM must leave. By now Charlie, Ray, Cliff and I had grown tired of these games. We confronted Roger. Cliff accused him in his weakened condition and charged that Roger confiscated many of his possessions from HEART OF PALM.
“Like what?” said Roger defensively? Cliff listed numerous missing items which Roger then admitted having aboard COUSCOUS. Cliff agreed to let Roger keep several items in exchange for the return of the rest. We told Roger we would leave Palmyra once the missing gear was returned and afterward Roger returned to COUSCOUS and delivered the items to shore. The following day July 16, Roger stopped by FINN and handed me a “Continued Violation” notice identical to that issued to IDIOM. At the bottom he had scrawled these words: “you will never be welcome on the island of Palmyra again.”
By this time almost everything of Cliff’s that was salvageable had been loaded onto IDIOM, It was time to leave.
I found it ironic that I had dreaded leaving Hilo but was relieved to put Palmyra behind me, What happened to us there, I later realised was a microcosm albeit an intense one of dilemmas faced by cruisers every day. Travelling the globe we learn that right and wrong are relative terms. Even wet tinder will ignite in the flame of confrontation and truth is as fickle as a squall in the doldrums. The next day in company with IDIOM, FINN headed out to sea. Next stop Samoa.