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The Night The Anchor Dragged In Palmerston

By Captain John Beebe-Center

April 15th, 2014

Sometimes you just know.

Being at anchor at Palmerston Island presented some logistical challenges – primarily because one goes from no sounding to a coral reef in about 200 yards distance. The out fall of the lagoon and the prevailing Easterly breezes are what keep an anchored ship from drifting up onto the reef once their anchor is down. Getting an anchor down and hooked up on Palmerston is possible – it has been done many times before now – but it always bears watching and is always a little tenuous. Captain Moreland’s advice for being hooked up was twofold; watch out for squalls and don’t put out too much chain because if you drag off the reef all the chain and the anchor will be hanging straight down in the water column and the windlass (crew) will have to pick up the whole dead weight.

So there we were, anchored up with a lovely sunset behind us and all bearings and electronics assuring us that we were dug in well. The sound of the breaking reef – a noise difficult for any sailor to sleep through – was gradually subsiding into background noise when I turned in for the night. Around 0230 I felt the anchor chain shift a touch and sat up to hear the wind begin a ramping up of pitch and volume, grabbed clothes and headed for the bridge.

When I got there I ran smack into McBroom who was looking worriedly at our electronic bearings and at a wall of black that had just “disappeared” Palmerston Island. I called Billy the Engineer to light off the main engine. I knew that shortly I would be using it either to keep us on the anchor or off the reef. And then the squall was there! Nice, big, extremely wet, very loud with a bag of wind. The anchor gave a half-hearted effort and then surrendered and we slid quickly from 6 meters of water to no bottom.

The crew aboard (remember that half the gang is ashore doing a home stay on Palmerston) head to the foc’sle head to begin hauling back the whole starboard ground tackle assembly which is indeed-hanging straight down in the water column. With that much weight on the windlass the Mate was obliged to rig a tackle to the capstan to help take the load. The gang worked like heroes for about two hours to win back that starboard hook and somewhere in there Erin and I went sailing around with the awning after which we posted the watch and drifted, quite comfortably, out to about 7 miles from the island.

Simon got up a great protein rich breakfast (Lily being ashore) and we got the main engine back on line and began heading for the island all the while speculating on what would be going through the minds of our shipmates when they woke up, looked out from their vantage point on the island and saw their ship gone.

Well, shouldn’t have worried about the gang. They were immediately reassured by the Palmertonians that we had simply been blown off the reef again – an event that they have witnessed with some regularity. Still, for me it was the first time and I will recall that, when I heard that first bit of rising moan from the portlight, I knew we were in for a longish night.

Sometimes you just know.

Cheers, Captain John

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