Safe In The Storm

Once upon a time, perhaps even a quarter of a century ago, six of my family went to sea for a couple of hours' fishing. The day was cloudy, with a westerly breeze. Rain was forecast towards evening, but that was all. We would be home long before then.

We motored out mid-morning from the harbour in Pop's solid old wooden 22-foot launch, the 'Akita', across Whangamata Bay, around the back of Clark Island and across Otahu Bay in front of my parents' home, heading for a small sheltered cove under high cliffs.

Pop, my father-in-law, dropped anchor and we spent a pleasant hour or so there. Then one of the men observed that the breeze was getting up and the sea looked a bit choppy so it might be a good idea to head for home earlier than planned. My menfolk were careful sailors.

We came out of the bay and around the high, sheltering headland that had completely obscured our view to the west, into rather rough sea. We were shocked to see the huge mass of dark, menacing clouds boiling up in the western sky, an unusual, awesome and intimidating sight. A big storm was brewing!

Coastal Storm

Our old boat was not fast and we were only halfway across Otahu Bay when the first squall hit. Rain lashed the windows of our small cabin, and the wind’s fury sweeping across the sea whipped up big waves that tossed us around mercilessly. Pop tried to head into the biggest waves, but to get across to the island we had to travel side on to the westerly so we kind of sidled along, pitching and rolling alarmingly. My husband was holding on with both hands to remain upright close beside Pop, to give him moral support, and my father, braced in a corner, was encouraging my children, Kevin and Toshala, and me to hang on tight and sing songs with him (so the children wouldn't be frightened). Toshala said later that she wasn't scared - it was exciting sliding around on the cabin seat, tipping upwards, then down, and sideways, like being on a roller coaster! Besides, she was with grown-ups - they always knew what to do!

Somehow, Pop eventually got us across to the lee of Clark Island, and the menfolk debated whether to wait there where conditions were a little safer, or to go on.

Those jagged rocks behind the island with the sea smashing over them looked uncomfortably close. The anchor probably wouldn’t hold in the rough sea, and how long would our fuel last? If the storm prevailed until nightfall we could be in a bigger pickle than we were in already. The tide would be low. After half-tide the keel would scrape on the sandy bottom of the harbour entrance, and we couldn’t risk getting stuck there. We would go on - make a run for it across the open bay. At least we would be heading due west directly into the worst of the seas this time.

Heading out from behind the island (no chance of turning back) we found the wind was wilder, with waves breaking continuously right over the prow causing an immediate emergency. The salt spray splashing directly on to the cabin window meant Pop couldn’t see anything through it. My tall husband quickly removed the hatch cover above and, with his head out through the hatch, took over the wheel with Pop beside him anxiously advising, instructing and guiding as we lurched along.

Poor Pop – he felt responsible for the dreadful situation we were in, though it wasn’t his fault. No adverse weather conditions had ever been forecast for that day. The waves were now coming at us from all directions. We soared over the crests - sometimes the propeller was momentarily out of the water - and plunged down, down into the troughs. When the biggest waves crashed right over the whole boat - and the skipper’s head - water poured inside the hatch and down his shoulders and shirt. Fortunately his shoulders blocked most of it, or we might have been baling out as well.

We found out later that my usually unflappable mother had been watching our slow progress – what she could see of it between the rainsqualls - with increasing alarm. She eventually rang the Harbourmaster and beseeched him to 'do something – save them!' His reply was, "Lady, no one could go out in these conditions. If they can reach their mooring, they will be safe as long as they stay put".

Our buoyant little boat always came bobbing up again, a bit like a plastic duck in a bathtub despite the worst the elements could throw at us because, to our indescribable relief, we did at last reach the relative shelter of the harbour. Even there the gale was whipping up small waves against the incoming tide. Waves in the harbour! But, tied up at our mooring, we were safe from the raging sea. The men decided it was too risky to set out in the dinghy for the shore. I think they might have chanced it on their own, but the children’s safety was paramount and my 'three wise men' made the right decision. We would sit it out – there was an hour or two to wait until the tide turned - and see what happened then.

The men took turns at fending off the dinghy, which was swinging around wildly and bumping into the boat, while the rest of us played cards in the cabin. It seemed an interminably long time.

At 4 pm a remarkable change took place and within five minutes the surface of the water smoothed out as the tide began to ebb. The wind was still blowing hard and the afternoon seemed unusually dark and gloomy, but at ten past four it was deemed safe to go. The dinghy was quite low in the water with six of us in it. My father started rowing while my husband and Pop attached the notoriously temperamental outboard motor, then Pop gave a mighty pull on the cord - and the motor obligingly roared into life. Our united cheer could be heard above it! I am sure that was the happiest Pop had been for hours.

And so we were reunited with our womenfolk waiting anxiously at home, and all lived happily for years after.

Lives have sometimes been lost in less extreme conditions, but now we see Our Lord Supreme had other plans for us, and kept us safe from harm that day on the storm-tossed, raging ocean.