That Sinking Feeling

Nick Beck
Summer 2010

The waterline was definitely rising. The bow lifted over the waves more slowly, the hull buried more deeply in the troughs with each passing minute. We were mid-channel in the Tahitian islands in a 30-foot sailing canoe. We had visions of a week-long idyll on the outer islands, but the reality was we were sinking.

Our safety bag contained a CB radio, a GPS, flares, a signal mirror, an extra knife, a cell phone and an EPIRB that was only to be used if our lives were in danger. We had sailed through some heavy conditions in our home Hawaiian waters without needing to be saved by the authorities; we weren’t going to request their help this time either. We fired off a quick series of cell phone calls without success.

Over the past few years we had extended our sailing canoe adventures to Tahiti – crystal clear lagoons, balmy trade winds, friendly locals – the stuff of every sailor’s dreams. But we were finding out that the channels could be as wild as anything in Hawai‘i, the passes often poorly marked and the currents sometimes too strong to enter into the lagoon beyond.

Our current canoe, Manu Ura, was an older but unique prototype of our Holopuni canoe. We had shipped her to Tahiti to develop the ultimate sail-camping vessel. When I left, we agreed that there were significant improvements needed. Those improvements hadn’t been completed when we arrived back in Tahiti. But the variable weather patterns showed an open window if we left soon. Looking forward to a leisurely camping trip exploring the outer islands, we cast the dice and decided to make the modifications after we returned.

Now, our main hull was almost completely underwater. Only the bow from the mast forward stayed above the seas. The sealed forward compartment and our two big, buoyant ama kept us afloat. Again we tried the cell phone to contact one of our friends on the neighboring islands: nothing.

We saw a fishing boat in the distance and rejoiced: Our plight would be short-lived. Soon this would all be just a bad dream; we would be enjoying Hinanos aboard our rescue craft while towing our swamped canoe. The fishing boat got closer; we waved and yelled. It kept coming. We waved and called on the CB. It kept coming. We tried the CB again: What is MAY DAY in Tahitian? The fishing boat passed below us. We yelled and set off a smoke flare. It kept going. We lit another flare and swore at it. Then it was gone.

Cursing, we tried the cell phone again: no answer. Only the head and shoulders of our steersman were now above water; with our sail up and the ama keeping us afloat we were making three knots. Maybe we could make land … but as the day progressed, the wind lightened. The currents now overpowered our progress, and we would be swept south out into the wide, open ocean.

We considered our next option: cutting the lashing from iako to the swamped hull and securing our 12-foot standup board underneath, where the canoe hull had been. Perhaps we could paddle or jury-rig a sail, maybe enter a channel. If the current was too strong we would try our luck surfing over the reef.

The wind was dying fast, the current was quickening. We steeled ourselves for what we had to do. We made one final call with the fading cell phone battery. Unbelievably it went through. Word was out, our location given. A boat was on its way.

About the Author

Nick Beck has spent much of his life designing, building, paddling and sailing outrigger canoes. Nick has paddled and sailed across every channel in Hawai‘i and Tahiti. His story is a wake-up call and a vivid reminder that ocean voyaging can quickly turn from a dream cruise to survival at sea. Visit his Web site