On The Reef

By Tom Neale, 10/28/2010


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Surreal is hardly the word to describe what it’s like when a fiberglass boat goes onto an ocean reef. I’ve seen it far too many times. And I’ve seen what it’s like afterwards.

At first, there is usually (but not always) the negligence or lack of navigational skills. Someone tries to negotiate an inlet in poor light instead of waiting for good daylight. Or someone reads a range wrong or gets confused by markers. Or someone underestimates the break of the sea and the surge of the current. There are many reasons, but the result is usually the same.

Different Boats Same Calm
The reaction of the family or friends aboard usually begins with denial. “OK, we’re on the reef, but we can save her.” If there’s no sea running and the hull is tough (many aren’t very tough these days) and the boat hasn’t gone on hard and the impact has been on a fairly smooth part of the reef, then maybe they can save her. But that’s a lot of “ifs” and it’s seldom the case. As they’re putting out a call for help, they go below to see “how bad it is” and to begin lightening her up. But typically, it usually only takes a moment or two for the water to come swirling over the floor boards. Your world that was so perfect is quickly becoming soggy, drowning. Each sea pushes and shoves the boat a little and you hear the crunch and tear and feel the flex as the reef opens up more hull to the ocean.

If there’s a storm raging, there probably isn’t time to do any of the above. There’s only a time to try to save your life, and likely, instead, a time to die. Because storm waves breaking on reef curl and crush. They tear flesh against the reef. There is no resisting it unless you’re lucky enough to be washed free of the reef, but then what. And I’ve noticed that for some reason when a boat’s dying, particularly if it’s making noises as it’s being ripped apart on a reef, sharks come. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe there’s a scientific reason. You really don’t care. You only care that they come.

Hopefully the people aboard quickly realize there’s nothing they can do but launch the dinghy and get to safe water. Far too often this can’t be easily done. I’ve known people to hang to their wave washed wrecks for days until rescue came. Thanks to all those good people who make GPS work and who come. But eventually there are no more people aboard and the little ship has lost any vestige of the soul she had.

And the waves continue to have their way with her. Shoving, smothering, pushing down, grinding and tearing. At first it’s just the bottom that’s victim, the keel, the rudder, the strut and prop. But soon the belly is exposed to cutting reef and it’s like a massacre. Whole sections of the hull are being pulled free, opened up, guts falling out. And as this is happening, the never ceasing swell usually lifts and pushes until the boat is free of the reef and falls off the other side. This may be into shallow water near a beach, but quite often it’s into deeper water and the boat quickly goes to the bottom. And unlike all the poems and sea stories, there it is NOT quiet.
Different Boats Same Calm

Even if there’s no storm, there’s always a surge unless the water is very deep. And there’s always the current. The surge rocks the wreck back and forth so that it continues to destruct even though resting peacefully on a sandy bottom. And the current, as the wreck becomes lighter, from loss of its structure, pulls it this way and that. But what is most depressing to me is the trail of its guts that it leaves on the ocean floor—the trail of the lives of those who sailed it. For from its gaping wounds comes all the stuff of living aboard. Along the ocean floor, in a path following what’s left of the hull, are sheets, pillow cases, a laptop, a printer, pots, pans, rope, anchor, mast, stainless cable, books, navigation tools, a tooth brush, a pair of glasses, and I could go on forever. It lies strewn about along this path of the boat’s final agony, mute stark testimony to what was there and what is no more. And soon even it is gone, spread about and covered by the sands.

And then there are the bubbles, slowly rising from the debris on the ocean floor to the top. How long a period of time they rise depends on many things. But usually the bubbles are there, for a while. Maybe they come from down in the hull, or maybe from some broken off section of the hull. Some are just air bubbles. Usually these bubbles stop first. But there is also oil from the engine and from the tanks. Sometimes a fuel tank, protected as it is, will remain intact for days, maybe much longer, before its contents begin escaping to do their damage. But escape they do. And paradoxically, they often find their way to parts of the same reef that killed the boat, and, in their turn, kill parts of that reef. The boat would probably have taken a few months to build. Or maybe much less. The reef would have taken hundreds or thousands of years to build.

Usually, if other cruising boats are around, the first visitors will be fellow cruisers genuinely trying to help the victims and their boat in any way they can. We’ve seen some heroic efforts over the years. Sometimes, if the sea is gentle and the impact wasn’t bad, they’ve even been able to save the boat. But this is rare. Then scavengers come, and their take may be valuable if the boat is still on top of the reef and abandoned when they arrive. But if she goes quickly to the bottom, saving anything becomes very difficult and even dangerous. Favorite items seem to be masts, stainless rigging, stanchions and bow pulpits—whatever can be ripped free and hasn’t been ruined by the corrosive salt water. A good professional salvage crew may be able to pull the wreck free and refloat if they get there soon enough, have the right equipment, and the wreck hasn’t been too badly damaged. I’ve seen some crews work miracles. But you can never depend on that and often the salvage is merely to save further environmental damage; the boat is hopeless.

Most likely, a few short months after the death of the boat and the death of the dreams of its owners, all that remains are pieces of junk, scattered here and there on the ocean bottom. They’re all browned by ocean slime and barnacles are taking over. Some are flat slabs of the hull, others are sections with holes and caves, making new homes for the fish and lobster who always lived there.

Tom’s Tips Avoiding Reef

1. There’s far too much reliance today on GPS chart plotters when it comes to navigating reefs in the Bahamas, Caribbean and other areas.
2. As good as chart plotters are, they can’t be any better than the cartography installed in the unit…

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