Towed to Tahiti–The Incredible Kindness of Strangers

One of my first blog entries when we started this voyage in January 2017 was titled “The Kindness of Strangers.” It described the outpouring of help we received from both friends and strangers in making repairs to Corroboree after a hard shakedown cruise from St. Augustine to Miami. In the eighteen months since, we have continued to meet good people all along our way. Now I want you to meet the five men who came to our aid during very difficult circumstances at sea.

We left Tahiti for Moorea on 26 June, where we spent four days exploring and drinking in the magnificent scenery. On 30 June we set sail for an overnight passage to the next island, Huahine, some 95 miles to the northwest. Arriving off the island at 0900 the following morning, we switched on the engine in preparation for entering the channel. The engine had sounded a little rough when we left Moorea but continued to run fine. Now it sounded rough again, though on inspection Eric could detect nothing amiss. Suddenly, it gave a ear-splitting metallic screech and died. The engine case was burning hot. What followed went something like this:

First, disbelief. This is the engine we had so painstakingly rebuilt in Puerto Rico only a year ago and which had purred like a contented cat ever since. In fact, on leaving Tahiti with a newly patched mainsail and new lazyjacks, Eric and I joked that having now replaced just about every part of the boat we would have nothing but easy cruising from then on. But there was no time to dwell on this utter reversal of fortune. We needed an action plan.

Second, decision. Whatever the problem, it wouldn’t be easy to fix in Huahine, a small island with no boatyard or any likelihood of a qualified Yanmar mechanic or spare parts. We balked at even trying to enter the pass and drop anchor under sail, an exercise we had never before attempted, let alone in an unfamiliar anchorage filled with other yachts. The only real option was to return to Tahiti. Still in shock, we turned Corroboree around.   

Third, sail. For the next 48 hours, we beat back into the wind. At first, we made reasonable progress, despite encountering nighttime squalls that obscured the moon and pelted us with rain. But by the second morning the wind died entirely, and we spent 12 hours going nowhere. At times, Corroboree simply drifted in maddening circles with not a breath of air to move her along.

Fourth, depression. It had been dogging us all along. Eric’s best guess being that the raw water pump which cools the engine had packed up, he blamed himself for not carrying a spare impeller. In fact, he had requested one when we had the pump installed a mere two years ago, but the store had none in stock and following up on it had slipped his mind. I blamed myself for being a mechanical idiot, unable to help in any way. We felt dumped on by the entire universe—frustrated, angry, worried, tired and hungry yet too stressed to sleep and with no stomach to eat. It’s hard to convey how debilitating such emotions can be.  

By Tuesday morning, 3 July, we were still  20+ miles from Tahiti, tacking fruitlessly north and south in light wind, trying to head southeast. At this rate, we could be out another 24 hours or more. Whenever we arrived we would need a tow to enter the harbor and reach a dock. We texted our yacht agent in Tahiti an urgent message via our satellite phone but got no reply.

Then a mile or so from Corroboree, we spotted a fishing vessel heading the other way. Since they were most likely a local boat, they could probably tell us who to call for a tow. Eric got on the VHF radio and made several calls but the vessel did not reply. Discouraged, we watched it move away. Then it turned. It turned all the way around and came toward us, and we waved it to come close. The wind and seas had come up a bit, and we had to shout and gesture back and forth to explain our predicament as the captain and crew spoke no English and it was hard to make myself understood in French above the wind and their engine noise. They advised us to call the port authority. We tried, but we were too far out of range. The captain then signaled us to try Channel 13, and an English-speaking voice came on the radio. After several exchanges in French, between the speaker, the captain, and the boat’s owner on shore, we were advised they could tow us in. It would take about four hours and the cost would be US$430. Was that all right?

Tow Video

Yes, yes, yes! In an instant we went from being numb with worry to being dumbstruck at our good fortune. It was still a dangerous enterprise to get a tow line tossed from the stern of the vessel, Mokai 2, to Corroboree. The wind and waves had stiffened again, and had Mokai 2 edged too close we might have slammed together and Corroboree been severely damaged by the far heavier metal boat. But the captain and crew handled her admirably, and Eric caught and secured the tow line while I steered. At approximately 1230 we were underway to Papeete at a steady 5.5 knots. I stayed on the helm to keep the tow line from catching under our bow anchors while Eric monitored the line for chafe. In the lee of the island, the seas calmed, and Mokai 2 brought us safely to a floating pontoon in the middle of the industrial area of the port.

 As soon as both boats were tied up, we went to thank our smiling rescuers. I hugged the captain, who had kept a handwritten log of the event in progress, documenting our position and exchanges, which he asked Eric to sign. It turns out he had heard our initial VHF call, and though he couldn’t understand English, he heard Eric using the word “Please” and surmised we were in distress. The three sailors seemed happy to have participated in the endeavor, and we shook hands more than once. We arranged to meet the owner of Mokai 2 the following day to pay our bill, to which we added a bonus for the captain and crew. In a final note of serendipity, the owner of Mokai 2 is named Eric.

Why did Mokai 2 turn around for us? Well, for one thing, it’s the law of the sea, and I’ve included the relevant passage is at the end of this post. But of course, that’s not really why they did it. Law or no law, they came because they are men of conscience who would not pass a struggling vessel by. They are men of skill, courage and good heart, and we thank them again from the bottom of ours. Here they are:

Hiro Wilson Puahio, Taiyu Sing, Captain Rodric Teautoua, Roges Teataoterani

Eric Joirin, owner of Mokai 2

We are now working with a mechanic to diagnose and rectify our latest engine issue. Since our visa for French Polynesia expires on 29 July, the time we’ve lost means we may not get to visit all the islands we had planned. That’s disappointing, but if the sole purpose of our voyage was just to drink rum at sunset in exotic anchorages, it would be a poor venture indeed. We wanted to meet people, experience different cultures and become part of the global community. In that, we have once again been richly rewarded by our encounter with Mokai 2.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Article 98, Duty to render assistance

Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers:
to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost;
to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him;