Not as planned...
Fri 8 Aug 2014 16:50
Avea Bay from outside the reef, you can make out the masts of the anchored boats behind the spray - taken from Lochmarin when we first arrived at Huahine, sailing up the West coast.
Jon and Phil had gone around to the South Pass body boarding in the mornings with other families from the Kiddie Cats. Enough surf can get through the pass to provide some nice manageable waves to catch on surf boards, body boards, and kayaks. Others pottered about on paddle boards or watched the fun. We only had two body boards and I'd had an ear infection so I hadn't gone with them, I was better now and Jon was happy to stay on Lochmarin so Phil and I set off to play.
The waves were curling in nicely and we caught a couple. We were aware that the current was pulling us along the shore each time we caught a wave so were sure to swim back each time to regain ground but Phil soon realised that we were being pulled out towards the pass as well. We swam as hard as we could for the dinghy. If you've surfed or body boarded you know that feeling when a wave is coming and you're trying to gain some speed to catch the wave but as the wave approaches you're pulled back and it feels like you're going nowhere. Well it was like that all the time. The dinghy didn't seem to be getting any larger however hard I kicked. I took to looking at the headland alongside the pass, marking a palm tree and seeing that I was inching forwards in respect to it, gradually making progress. Phil had been further out, more in the grip of the rip tide, so he was dropping behind me. He called out that I should lift the anchor and come and get him if I got to the dinghy ahead of him.
As I got closer to the dinghy some local surfers came by. I hailed them, asked for help and tried to explain that Phil was being pulled out through the pass, and that I was going to the dinghy. They seemed to understand and set off towards the pass, I hoped in search of Phil. As soon as I got to the dinghy I lifted the anchor and set off after them. I couldn't see Phil anywhere. I didn't want to get too close to the waves so backed off and went over to two surfers in the shallows. One could speak English but he was loath to help as his friend was blind and he was guiding him as they surfed in the shallower water. He told his friend to stay where he was and came with me in the dinghy to search for Phil... still no sign. I was starting to be seriously worried about Phil - the waves in the pass were huge walls of green/blue coming through in confused directions. What if it he had been caught in wave after wave, couldn't come up for air, had lost his board?
We went as close as we dared to the surf then turned to return to safety, but as we made for shore larger waves caught us up and swamped the dinghy - the petrol tank floating upside down outside the boat, the engine clearly soaked through. I tried to bail but the next wave and the next were upon us, turning the dinghy upside down, then back up again, then upside down again, spinning me round and round under the waves, each time I came up I'd grab for the side of the dinghy. The surfer set off for shore telling me to try to hold on but the next few waves separated me from the dinghy. I seemed to be under the water for ever, swimming and swimming in the direction I thought was 'up', grabbing a mouthful of air before being dragged back under again. When I finally stayed up all I could do was breath, drawing the precious air into my lungs.
I had been pulled out through the pass. I could see no dinghy, no Phil, no surfer, no one. In front of me the sun shone through beautiful crystal aquamarine waves rising up high above me as they hit the reef. I had no board to hold on to, no flippers to help me swim, nothing to help keep me up. It was a bad moment.
I concentrated on catching my breath, recovering, then saw I had drifted North a little so swam South to try to stay alongside the pass. I was scared of the surf in the pass but being swept onto the coral reef by the power of those waves was a worse option! I don't know how long I swam for, but I was getting tired when, as a wave lifted me, I saw on the top of another wave the upturned dinghy. Of I headed to the dinghy again and each time I was lifted by a wave I saw the dinghy was a little closer so I knew I'd be fine. When I reached it I just held on for a while, my arms and legs gone to jelly but after a while I clambered onto the top of the upside down hull.
But what had happened to Phil? There was still no sign of him and now I was safe (the surfer knew I was there - he'd call for help) I was even more worried about him, I could feel the panic build up in my chest, like when you're a kid and realise you are 'lost'. But this time it wasn't me who was lost. Unknown to me Phil was fine. His misspent youth surfing the beaches around Cape Town had served him well and being rolled by a few breakers across the pass hadn't fazed him. He had kept hold of his board and was simply conserving energy and holding his place knowing I would call the alarm. But it had been maybe a couple of hours now so he decided to start shouting. After a tentative "Hello!" he settled on a roar of "Help!" every minute or so - and I heard him!
It's hard to describe my relief when I heard him. He was alive and he was near and he was well enough to shout! I shouted back (he didn't hear me against the noise of the swell on the reef) and lying on the upturned dinghy started kicking my legs to send it in the direction of his call. After about 10 or 15 minutes I could see him! I balanced on the top of the dinghy hull and waved in the hope he'd see me then went on kicking. Next time I saw him I could see he still had his board. When I saw that I relaxed and stopped pushing myself so hard to move the dinghy. He was fine, in sight and we were getting closer - everything would be alright.
But it was a hard few minutes for Phil, when he caught a glimpse of the upturned dinghy he didn't at first know I was on it, he was scared that I'd been swept off it and was in trouble somewhere, perhaps with no one knowing we were both out there. He headed for the dinghy as fast as he could kick. Once he saw me on the top he relaxed: I was safe and well; we'd find a way out of this.
As soon as he reached me and climbed on board I told him the surfers knew we were there: it was only a matter of time before they got help to us. He explained how we could right the dinghy, so working together, rolling with the waves, with a "one, two, three... hup!" we pulled it over. We were now securely in a right way round dinghy, using Phil's body board as a sunshade. We'd lost one oar but still had one, which Phil decided to employ as a flag stick to guide any rescue vessel to us. The only problem was what would we use for a flag? We were suffering from the sun, any sun cream we'd put on before leaving Lochmarin was long washed off, so we didn't want to use our protecting rash vests (Phil had had to pull his up at the back to protect his poor head!) We settled on using Phil's swim shorts - they had quite a bit of red in them and there wasn't much else to choose from!
So when the rescue boat reached us they greeted us with smiles as Phil preserved his dignity by wriggling quickly back into our flag! The crew, who were local pompiers or firemen, were superb: totally unflustered they took good care of us. I was pretty exhausted so they dressed me up in fireman's trousers and top and made me comfortable on the sole of the boat with life jackets as cushions. About ten minutes after they'd found us the helicopter arrived. I sat up and waved to show them I was fine, just very tired, then settled back down again.
I was worried that Jon would be concerned whilst waiting on Lochmarin but they phoned to tell the police that Jon was there and they sent a boat to let him know we were ok and check he was fine. He was just starting to wonder how he'd say we'd not come back from surfing in French on the radio when he suddenly had a sequence of folk coming out to check on him. He had been industriously cleaning the hull of the boat whilst waiting for our return!
Meanwhile our rescuers decided the pass was too rough to go back through so we motored up the East coast to the pass at the top of Huahine Iti before motoring back down inside the reef to be delivered safe and sound back to a relieved Jon on Lochmarin.
So. We are fine. Phil has a sunburnt head and nose, I have plenty of bruises (dancing in the surf alongside a 9 1/2 ft aluminium dinghy) and sun blistered lips. Other than that all is good.
We responded quickly to realising the tide was pulling us out and I raised the alarm before going out to try to find Phil. We kept ourselves afloat and preserved our energy. We were lucky that there was such a good rescue service here in French Polynesia (many thanks again!) otherwise we might have been out there much longer. A pretty scary episode but no harm done. It served to emphasise what we've understood more and more as we've sailed across the oceans, nearly half way around the world now: we are here on the sea as her guest, we are able to keep safe by never underestimating her. She is not something you can tame or control, but rather we have to flow with her, read her moods and trust in her whilst paying our respects to her good king Neptune! It's nothing personal, but she's doing her own thing and doesn't notice us bobbing along on top of her. This is something we've come to feel in our bodies, not just know with our heads.
Meanwhile we're arguing! I say I rescued Phil: well, I sort of brought him a dinghy didn't I? Even if it was upside down. And I paddled it to him when I heard him call. But he says he rescued me: He called for me, he kicked his board towards me faster than I could kick the dinghy to him, he transformed me from the state of clinging to an upside down dinghy to safely in a right way round one complete with flag.
I think, in actual fact, as usual, we looked after each other.