Talk on 21 August 2006 by Bev & Keith Agar of H28 Tamujin
At the first meeting of the H28 Association, under the guidance of our newly elected committee, the guest speakers were Keith and Bev Agar. They had recently reached the attention of the boating fraternity by surviving the sinking of their magnificent boat Tamujin.
Keith started his talk by saying that in view of the large turn-out at the meeting there must be plenty of people wanting to find out how to sink an H28. What a great sense of humour having just lost a splendid boat. Keith and Bev took turns to tell their tale of high drama, tragedy and pleasant surprises plus lessons learnt.
Keith and Bev had left Opua on the 6th July 2006 having waited for a favourable window in the weather. A good SW wind of 25 knots got them on their way. It kept up for three days and then freshened to 45 knots. Then the wind vane bent and they had to resort to hand steering which was tiring. The auto helm was then taken off the boat by a big wave and things started to look awkward as they sailed on the wind towards Tonga.
Then the weather gave them a break for two days with not a breath of air and an oily calm sea. The weather forecasts, however, warned them that there were two cold fronts converging on them. Then the seas got huge and sailing was difficult for days. Bev and Keith were tired and had not eaten properly for some time. They had no energy to cook and merely nibbled snacks. “Keith was also seasick – again”, said Bev.
When they got close to Tonga Bev described looking back from the crest of a huge wave, “like being on the top of Kilimanjaro” and said she had never seen seas as big in her life. Terrifying. They did not want to try to enter harbour in those conditions with strong
winds but chose to find some shelter on the lee side of a mountainous island with steep cliffs. Also, the halyard on their furler needed repair. Behind the island it was relatively calm and well sheltered. After some time they realised that the wind was gradually blowing them away from the island so after about four hours they started the engine and motored towards it again to benefit from its shelter. By this stage it was getting dark. The process was repeated a couple of times – gradually blown away from the island, then motoring back into its sheltered lee side.
Keith explained that they were close to a very deep trench and closer to the island it was still 80m of water so any thought of anchoring was out of the question. Once more, around 11:00 p.m., they motored in to the shelter of the island and Bev expressed concern that they had perhaps gone too close. Their chart plotter showed that they were still a distance from the island. Keith felt safe there so he turned in for a nap while Bev did some chart work planning for the next day.
After a while Bev looked up from her charts to examine the chart plotter again and it showed that they were right up against the island. She immediately
called to Keith and went to start the motor. Too late – there was an awful crash as the boat hit the reef next to the island. Bev went to the tiller and it broke off in her hand. The boat had hit the reef stern first and the rudder was smashed.
Keith said “You cannot believe the violence – it is enough to shake out your fillings”. In spite of their predicament they calmly went through all of the correct procedures. A Mayday was sent out. They got into wet weather gear and put on good shoes, because of the sharp reef, got out the grab bag which was ready and added some extra items.
Taupo Maritime Radio advised them to activate their EPIRB which Keith secured to himself. Bev included a space blanket, tarps to make a bivouac, food packs and extra water. She even included tooth brush and paste as she does not like being unable to brush her teeth.
Keith and Bev left the boat in water which varied from chest deep to hip depth and waded a couple of hundred meters to the beach walking backwards. They did not use the life raft but Keith tied it to himself when they went ashore. They did not want to be thrown forwards onto rocks by unseen waves from behind. The high flotation collars behind their heads would protect them if they fell backwards towards the shore.
Keith had managed to contact Taupo Maritime Radio and through them the Tongan authorities were notified. The police had been given the co-ordinates of the wreck and came looking for them. However, they had no knowledge of longitude and latitude so they enlisted the assistance of an American Peace Corps worker, a little Indian fellow, who led the way.
Bev and Keith got ashore safely and set about getting dry, warm and trying to get some sleep. Keith said that sleep was difficult as they could hear their boat being crunched against the rocks. The EPIRB light was flashing and Keith suggested covering that with a towel to enable sleep. “No!” Bev wanted to see that flashing light. All of Tamujin’s lights were on so Bev and Keith saw those swinging back and forth continually. Bev wanted to crawl behind a rock to get out of sight of the boat lights. She also had cold feet and eventually put them into plastic bags which improved matters.
The boat’s lights stayed on all night which enabled the police to find them on an otherwise black coastline. Their helpers arrived before day break and suggested that they go back to the boat immediately as the tide was out. Keith flatly refused to go in the dark and said that he would wait for daylight. Later local fisherman arrived too to assist.
The audience was enthralled by the events related so far and the calm manner in which Bev and Keith spoke about danger and disaster. Now the tale took a turn. Many positive things were said. Keith had high praise for Taupo Maritime Radio who responded quickly and gave good advice. Bev explained how the locals were delightfully polite and caring.
Keith was matter-of-fact when he explained that he had no further use for many of the items on the boat that the locals could utilise. Keith decided to give them away – if he did not the locals would take them anyway. Keith gave away the batteries, solar panels and much more. Bev said that the food would not last and they had heaps on board. When they had loaded up the boat before departure the remark was “Do we need all of that? – we are not going to feed the Third World”. Prophetic – as that is exactly where the food ended up.
The Tongans were helpful, polite and respectful even though they had come to glean the spoils of the wreck. It was “looting by consent” with Keith and Bev indicating what was theirs, not to be taken and donating the rest. When the beer, champagne and wine were discovered the removal of items from the boat became somewhat of a party. The inside of the boat was at this stage still fairly dry.
The most highly prized commodity was rope. Keith said that if ever you go to Tonga take all the old rope that you can find. Everyone there wants rope. Everyone uses rope. They use rope for everything from tying up cattle, goats, pigs to tying up wives and children (perhaps that was an exaggeration?).
Bev and Keith spent a second night on the beach.
Then the Tongan navy arrived and after communication problems were solved offered to try to tow them off. That failed when the naval rope broke. Keith had plenty of his own rope and some chain and offered that. Time had run out as the tide had receded and the naval vessel declined further attempts. Tamujin had already sustained considerable damage and it rapidly worsened when the next tide came in. Keith said that the forces were brutal and the fuel and water tanks were pushed up and through into the inside. Parts of the boat were subjected to enormous forces and hugely distorted.
At one stage timbers opened, trapped the cuff strap of his jacket, and then closed. He had to cut off the strap to free himself.
Bev and Keith left the beach area with difficulty. Scaling the steep cliffs carrying their saved possessions was not feasible, even with the assistance of locals, so they were taken out by police to a fishing boat. Getting into an inflatable from the rocks in the still heavy seas was quite a feat. Keith described how a local police lieutenant achieved that by timing the waves to perfection.
“All that remained after that was to report to immigration, have our passports stamped and to fly home” said Keith.
Bev described various little incidents and her emotions about events before they left Tonga. If you go shopping there do not expect to be able to buy anything other than fizzy drinks and bully beef. The locals were very kind and a woman who had heard of their plight brought them a dish of taro with a delicious fish sauce. Bev said that their huge tragedy was really a most enriching experience. Later at the airport they met the lieutenant from the navy ship and he said “I am so glad that you are safe”. Bev was impressed by everyone’s caring. When she told that they had lost not just a boat but their home people felt very sorry for them. That sort of caring really made an impression on Bev and Keith. Keith summed up the whole event: “A bit of a bummer – but enriching”. Bev said that she got tearful only at the airport and mainly because folk were so caring and sympathetic.
Keith ended by saying that getting off the boat safely and knowing what to do and what to take with them was vital. Hisadvice was:“Do what the Coast Guard teaches”.
During question time other facts were mentioned: Bev and Keith were at sea for 12 days. Most of that was in high winds so that they averaged 6.8 knots doing 130 miles per day. The cockpit filled several times but not from being pooped by waves.
It was “slop” that came up over the sides. The weather was atrocious with several weather fronts following each other. Weather forecasts were “spot on”. In the area where they were wrecked an interisland ferry runs every day of the year but it had not put to sea for the three days prior to the wrecking which is an indication of the conditions at the time. Other boats also out there were having a rough time. The cause of their being wrecked? Wind blowing inland after swirling over the top of the island? Wind direction change? Tide? Keith said he thought that currents were the most likely cause of them being moved towards the island rather than being blown away from it as on the previous occasions.
Were they insured? “No”. Keith explained the financial issues and problems like high excess and premiums; the requirement of having a third person on board to qualify for cover and more. Keith said that he suffered no injuries during the events except for a broken finger nail. Even if the navy had managed to pull them off the reef the boat was not in a condition to sail back for repair and shipping it would also have been a problem.
“Would you do it again?”. “Yes, but with a larger steelhulled boat”.
“What about the future?” “We plan to go to the mines in Australia to earn some serious money and then take it from there”.Good luck, Bev and Keith, for the future and may any sailing you do be free of the dramas that you have experienced recently. Thank you for sharing some of them with us and most of all for showing how to see the positive side of adversity.Notes taken by Chris Rein