It was a strange sail from Mo’orea to Huahine because the ocean seemed annoyed and stormy. Waves were not in order but coming from all directions and Tanda Malaika felt different – bumpy and uneasy as she moved through the water. We had left Mo’orea around 6am and it was about 8pm and completely dark when I was in the galley cooking a late dinner with two hot pots on the stove and more food baking in the oven. Dinner was almost done and I had just sat down next to the stove because my sciatica was pretty painful. Jude and Emma were asleep in their beds, Mycah was standing in the galley on the port side of the boat and Aidan was sitting and reading. Danny was at the helm keeping close watch as we neared our destination, and we were moving at a speed of about 8-9 knots with the jib out and both engines running. Danny was watching the navigation instruments when he noticed the depth gauge suddenly drop from 180ft to 0, and he tried turning the helm hard to port realizing that an unmarked reef was ahead. It was at that point that we all felt Tanda Malaika violently hit reef. Massive waves raised her port hull to about a 75 degree angle then dropped her with an incredible force back down onto the reef. I saw Mycah being thrown from port all the way to starboard, down the stairs of the starboard hull and forward onto the floor in her cabin. I reached for the hot pots of food as books, water bottles, cutlery, the contents of the fridge, Emma’s potted basil plant, electronics that had been on a shelf and so many more things came fly through the air and smashing all over the floor. I could hear the roar of the engines, the wind and pounding waves, splashing water in massive amounts bashing against the windows and ceiling and deck and water, so much water pouring in through the open hatches, and scraping and grinding of Tanda Malaika’s keels and rudders as we were once again lifted and pushed farther and smashed onto the reef once more, slamming her 27 tons down again and again. I panicked, wondering if Danny was ok or if he’d been thrown from the helm station and I frantically called to him and heard no reply. I saw Emma rush past to get to Danny, giving no thought to her own safety, and she was thrown across the boat and into the life lines. Jude , Aidan and Mycah rushed about shutting hatches as waves poured in. Emma found Danny and tried to help him furl the jib, Mycah, Jude and Aidan and I desperately trying to secure things as we were all thrown about on a slippery, floor covered in food, dirt, water and all sorts of debris.
I heard myself yelling to Danny again to make sure he was ok as another wave hit us hard and all the scraping and grinding continued once again. More debris became projectile weapons hurled around and Mycah worked her way into the stern salon to see if she could take over where Emma had tried to go help Danny. She managed to help him furl the jib and each time a wave was about to hit, she yelled ‘BRACE YOURSELVES’ – which was such a great help, allowing us brief moments to secure items between another violent pounding. The helm spun around fast, hitting her knees and hand. Emma came rushing in, crying and panicking and I took her in my arms telling her we were ok, we were all accounted for at that point and I knew we weren’t about to sink because we were on a reef, but reassured her over and over as we were slammed, grinding repeatedly, water rushing in and the sound of violent waves pounding from every direction. I smiled to her and said, ’this is pretty cool, we’re surviving a ship wreck!!!’ She cried more and kept repeating aloud that she was going to be brave, as if trying to convince herself. Mycah noticed the dinghy looking like it was about to fall from the davits, and ran to grab the line on it just as another wave slammed into us. I saw her being thrown down the sugar scoop stairs and out of view and frantically yelled, ‘man over board,’ just in time to see her climbing back up again. She had been thrown all the way down to the bottom step and thankfully no further. I told the kids to check bilges to see how much water we were taking on. Everything seemed upside down and sideways. Everything was drenched and grinding.
I heard Danny calling ‘MAYDAY, MAYDAY, this is sailing vessel Tanda Malaika, MAYDAY’, on the VHF radio, over and over again. It was unreal to hear Tanda Malaika’s name being called in a mayday. I remember feeling so grateful because his voice sounded calm and he was so good on the radio from all his flying experience. It brought me momentary peace. Jude took charge of the bilges in the starboard hull as they were filling with water, and without me or Danny saying a word, the creatures calmly grabbed buckets, formed an assembly line and began bailing water out. While I tried scooping up as more debris from the ground so everyone wasn’t slipping and sliding on it, Danny checked the bilges in the port hull, and found them full as well. He managed to get the bilge pumps started and slowly they began to pump water out of both hulls. Every wave that hit was so loud and sent us falling about once again as we tried to make sense of the projects at hand. Finally the French Navy responded and Danny gave them our coordinates, they told us they would send help and to stand by. During the next 90 minutes, we were contacted by cruisers in a nearby anchorage and told that they heard our mayday and were going to try reach us to help. They were from the boats Beach Flea, Terapin and Cape D. We were contacted periodically and updated by the Coast Guard, we were thrown about the boat by huge bashing waves, grinding keels and hull, and I told everyone to gather a backpack full of personal items they might need over the next couple of days. The creatures immediately rushed down calmly and so bravely to their berths to follow out the task as they were bashed about and could more easily feel the scraping and grinding below them in the hulls. It’s an interesting experience…if you had a few minutes, what would you grab for your backpack? I’ve never been a material person, but aside from my wedding ring, I made sure I had my brothers scriptures, the ones my mom gave me when he died not too long ago, as well as a little crocodile the kids had given me as a gift. I also made sure I had all important family and boat documents. I saw Aidan coming up the stairs from his berth, and he stood wide eyed next to me repeating over and over, ‘Oh man, mom…oh man…’ I placed my arms around him and told him it’s all going to be ok. I tried to believe it as I confidently told him everything will workout just fine, as another huge wave came crashing over our home….everything’s ok….I just wanted to cry, scream, melt, be strong, be weak, lift the boat off the reef with my own two hands, curl up in a corner and cry, but mostly I wanted to hold my son and tell him without doubt that everything was going to be ok. So that’s what I did. Suddenly all lights went out and we were left in complete darkness, then slammed by another wave. More scraping, shaking, grinding, then moments later the lights flickered on again. Mycah came passed and her, Aidan and I prayed together, then separated and got back to work once more. The cruisers in dinghies were approaching far in the distance, their spot lights bright. We saw no way they could get to us due to all the reef, but they kept slowly coming our way. I walked out to the deck to shine the light back and forth so they might be able to see the reef and waves around our boat in the dark. Waves continued to crash over us, and my drenched body shivered more from shock than cold. I went back inside and watched as more waves shook the windows with intense force. I just knew they would break any second. Coast Guard came on the radio again, saying they would be another 20 minutes. 20 minutes… I’ve lived so many days of life never giving any thought to a 20 minute period of time. It had seemed so short. 20 minutes in a storm on a reef in a broken home on the ocean with your loved ones, is 20 hours long. It’s endless waves, endless scraping and endless shaking back and forth. Endless thoughts about what’s going to happen next, please Father in Heaven, spare my family. Endless picking up debris, watching water gurgle in the bilges. The generator stopped again and all lights went out once more. No radio contact could be made with anyone now since all power was lost. Hadn’t it been an hour now since they’d said 20 minutes? We were suddenly completely covered by bright light as the helicopter flew overhead – I hadn’t even heard them coming, then theyey carried on far off into the distance. It felt like they were abandoning us. I asked Danny where they were going and he explained how they had to fly into the wind to approach the boat. We all moved out onto the front deck, holding tight onto rails and life lines. Our life jackets had always been stored in the front deck lazarette, and in this experience we found that it was too dangerous to get to when we first hit reef. A good lesson to learn for future voyages…keep them in a stern locker! We stayed low on the deck and grabbed life jackets, helping each other clip in in the wind, and then watched the helicopter approach. We were soaked through and getting sprayed by waves as we stood. Aidan was just in his board shorts, Mycah in her swim suit and a t-shirt, the rest of us in shorts and t-shirts as we stood drenched in the wind and waves looking upward. We all stopped for a moment and had a family prayer together.
The helicopter hovered over Tanda Malaika, and a young man named Fredrick in a light pink wetsuit descended at the stern. We all walked down the deck to meet him with our backpacks on our backs.
He apologized for taking so long and said his group had been doing training in the mountains of Tahiti. We thanked him for coming as he gathered us in the stern salon, and told us to place all our backpacks on the table, take life jackets off and put helmets on. The last time I’d worn an ugly helmet like that was when we had slid down 27 waterfalls in Dominican Republic, so I told everyone as we stood together that aside from a helicopter ride, I sure hoped that some sliding down waterfalls was going to be included in this deal! It made them chuckle for a minute.
Fredrick told us that he was going to place a strap around our chest, which would pretty much stay on only because we had to hold our arms down by our hips in front of us. If we raised our arms, we would fall from the harness onto the reef. Emma helped so much by translating his French into English, so he told her he wanted her to go last so he could use her for communication. Jude went first, walking with Fredrick to the top of the starboard sugar scoop. It was difficult for me to watch my child leave my side, her safety in a strangers hands, knowing that one wrong move could cause her death.
Before I knew it, she was clipped in and lifted high above us and in about 30 seconds, she was out of sight and into the helicopter.
By the time Jude was in, Mycah had her harness in place, Judes harness was sent back down to us, unclipped and Mycah was clipped in and Judes harness was placed on Aidan.
One by one my babies were raised up and disappeared from sight into safety.
Fredrick decided that it would be best if four of us went on the first trip out to the airport, followed by the last two and the backpacks on the second trip. Danny wanted to stay with Emma, so I was next. He kissed me sweetly, told me he loved me and he’d see me soon, and I was lifted up over our home. I saw her solar panels that had provided extra energy, I saw her trampoline where we’d lay so many times, listening to the sound of the water below us and the stars up above, and I saw our mast standing sturdy and tall, with the American flag flying proudly on a line to it’s side. There, was my home, and she was not floating freely like she should be. She looked too still, awkward and solid in place, and then I watched another wave slam up against her hull, shoving her slightly. My heart ached as I watched her below me. I felt hands on my shoulders as my body was guided into the helicopter where three of my children were sitting with tear stained eyes. They were so brave, so drenched, so exhausted as they smiled at me.
We flew through the darkness, across the island where homes with glowing yellow light dotted the island. Homes that stood firm and dry filled with families who laughed and loved like ours usually did after a busy day, as everyone sat around with full bellies from the family meal and talked about this and that. That reminded me, our family meal still sat on Tanda Malaika. Our home. Our meal was uneaten and cold by now. We had not sat around the table and chatted as we usually do, and most likely never would sit around that table again. Our home was being beaten by the waves she used to ride on. Home. I just wanted to go home. The lights from the runway caught my attention bringing me back to the present, and we lowered down till we could feel the solid dry ground below us. I reached over and thanked the pilots for their efforts and asked them to please bring Emma and Danny safely to us. They raised their thumbs and we were immediately led out and into the main building, and greeted by men in blue overalls with wide, warm smiles on their faces. The short little airport manager greeted us in English we could easily understand, and told us to follow him to his personal office. He gave us water to drink, showed sympathy and strength that made us feel like we were in good hands, and handed me a pad of paper to write all our names, birthdates and Tanda Malaika’s information on. I listed us all, one after the other and was so grateful that the names I was writing down were of people I loved who continued to live. I wasn’t having to write down information of people I loved who we were to be brought off our boat in body bags. This could have been so much worse. We were all alive…then I listed Tanda Malaika’s information and I wondered if she could possibly live through this with us too. We were her family. She was a mother to us, a friend, a protector, a sanctuary. She was who we returned to each day after doing humanitarian work, we cried in her for those we had helped and felt so bad for. Her name was written down on the pad but she would not be brought in on the next trip with Danny and Emma, but would be left behind in the cold on the reef. She would stay and be smashed to pieces by the violent waves. I started to tear up. I wanted to go home. Two members from the gendarmerie walked in and spoke in French to the manager. The air conditioned office was cold and I looked at my children, who were still so wet and cold and in shock like I was, and I just wanted to hold them in my arms, wrapped in a blanket like I did when they were little. When they asked us what happened and we told them that our chart did not show reef, they asked us if we had been using Navionic charts, and I said yes. He then shook his head and said that at least five boats end up on those reefs a year who were using Navionic charts. They walked me over to a large map on the wall and told me to point exactly to where Tanda Malaika was, and I did to the best of my knowledge. They then pointed to two places, our spot being one of them, that all the wrecks seem to happen, then gave us the name of a man who we could call for salvage help. The word ‘salvage’ seemed so cold and final. It sounded to me like death. Had Tanda Malaika really just completed her final sail? The men in blue overalls came over and gave Mycah a pair of blue work shorts, and the little mananger man gave Aidan a clean, dry shirt and Jude a soft red towel that smelled like fresh laundry detergent. The creatures put them on and Jude used her towel as a cape and pretended to fly away. My sweet children who were so exhausted were so strong and loved each other so much, that even now they tried to cheer each other up.
We walked together to where we could see the runway and watched the bright lights of the helicopter approach. We were anxious and just wanted to be together, all of us as we usually were. As soon as they landed we ran out to them, and the creatures embraced Emma as if they hadn’t seen her in years, then wrapped her in the red towel. I walked over to Danny and wrapped my arms around him.
The flight crew exited and greeted us, hugged us and then hugged us again. They told us they were so glad we were all ok, and that they were relieved that they hadn’t had to look for bodies in the water. I thought back to the days I had worked with the Sheriffs Dive rescue and body recovery team. We had sometimes been scuba diving for several days at a time, looking for bodies, as the family stood close by on shore, and I felt so grateful once again that we were all alive.
After Danny chatted with the authorities for a while, and information and phone numbers of various people were exchanged, we were taken by police car to a hostel close by. A sweet woman named Lawrence greeted us and showed us to two rooms across the hall from each other. Each room was clean and dry and had a queen and a single bed in it. I placed my wet backpack on the table, went into the bathroom and removed my wet, salty clothing, and stood in the warmth of the shower and finally allowed myself to acknowledge just how exhausted I was. My body ached. Sciatica pain made me feel like I just couldn’t stand any longer, and I cried as the warm water washed every tear away. I was going to be strong for my children. We still had a long, long road ahead, and I was going to be strong.