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Friday, November 9, 2007

Departing Papua New Guinea

While preparing to depart on our last morning in Papua New Guinea we were anchored in the Lee of a beautiful uninhabited island. On our first day there, the anchorage appeared to be well protected. The winds were light and the seas were calm. The second morning however, everything was a bit different. Throughout the night, the speed of the wind gradually increased bringing with it larger swells. Awaking to a boat that was rocking and rolling in every direction, we could see that this would not be a good day to set sail. The island was no longer offering protection to us, only splitting the swells as they came in allowing them to reconverge in the area where the boat lay, causing it to get tossed about in every uncomfortable way you can imagine. With the seas being a bit too rough to snorkel, we confined ourselves to reading on the boat for the day as well as making a few last minute preparations to the boat for the journey back to Australia. The next morning we awoke to lighter winds but the swells were still rolling in. While standing on the stern of the boat getting the sheets and jack lines prepared for our departure, we heard a loud crash and felt the boat shudder. Unsure of what it was, Bill and I walked towards the bow to figure out what had happened. Looking at the windlass, we found the anchor chain had become dislodged from the grip of the wildcat. The snubber line had caught the chain and was holding it strong to a deck cleat while the swells continued tossing the bow of the boat up into the air. As Bill investigated the windlass to see what had happened, it only took a few cranks to realize that something inside was not working right. A glance inside revealed that a critical piece had sheared off and our windlass would be out of service until we could get back to Australia and find a new part for it. Not only did this mean that we would not be making our last intended stop in PNG but it also meant that we were going to have to pull in a couple of hundred feet of anchor chain by hand. All this while the boat continued to be tossed up and down by the swells that were still bombarding us. After a tough struggle to get the anchor on board, we were off to Australia. Sailing through the last of the islands of the Engineer group, we made our way through the last pass before heading into the open ocean. As we passed by the last island, Yiannis decided to venture out onto the point of the bowsprit. This is a great place to be while sailing in calm seas, but when it starts to get rough, you don’t want to be anywhere near there. Now in the lee of the island, the seas surrounding us had temporarily calmed down. I am not sure what was going through Yiannis’s head, but I could see the massive swells pouring in-between the two islands. That was the only way out and with an outgoing current flowing toward the open ocean, the last portion of the pass looked like a pretty nasty stretch of breaking waves that we were sailing directly into. Watching Yiannis standing on the bowsprit looking in the other direction when we first touched the waves, it was quite apparent he didn‘t realize what was about to happen to him. After the first few little bumps, Yiannis looked down to see the sea drop from beneath the boat followed by the bow plunging into the water and submerging Yiannis to his waist. From the back of the boat, I could see the look of fear and concern in his eyes and I asked Bill what the hell he was doing out there. We both looked on as the second wave broke over Yiannis, almost knocking him off the boat. Yiannis was now trying to wait on a gap in the waves to make his way back to the deck of the boat. Gripping the inner fore stay with all his strength he began making the long stretch to step back on deck. With an outstretched leg, another swell hit and Yiannis went flying. Holding onto the steel cables, he was flung in a circle to the other side of the boat where he then went overboard! Watching the scene, I thought he was gone and we would be executing a very difficult man overboard exercise in the midst of the crashing waves. Somehow, Yiannis was still holding on to the stay and amazingly his feet had landed on another cable that supports the bowsprit from the side! Fighting the swells, Yiannis pulled himself back on board and slowly made his way back toward the cockpit. Holding his hands and slightly limping, we could tell he was in pain. How he hung onto that steel cable, I will never understand. They are the most slippery surfaces on the boat and somehow he kept his grip. A quick glance at his hands told the story. Across the bottom of all of his fingers was a tear in the skin. More like a burn, each finger had been ripped open like a painful series of blisters. The bottom of his foot was already turning blue from the impact but without landing on that cable, he would have been drifting out to sea, alone amongst the white capped waves that now surrounded us`.

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