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October 2006 Vol. 32, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Nai'a Crew Rescues All Hands After Grounding

from the October, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Divers aboard the Nai’a, one of the more respected liveaboards in the Pacific, were evacuated in rolling seas when the craft was swept onto a Tonga reef by a rogue storm on the second night of an 11-day August whale-watching trip. According to first hand accounts, passengers had been warned of heavy winds and went to bed anchored off remote Luanamo Island. They were awakened about 3:00 a.m. by the impact of the 120-foot motorsailer’s steel hull crunching into a reef. Owner Rob Barrel told Undercurrent, “The wind shifted 180 degrees and picked up to gale force in the space of five minutes, causing the anchor to drag until the keel fetched up on the reef.”

Subscriber Ron Dion (San Francisco, CA) told Undercurrent that crew members summoned all twelve passengers to the salon, instructing them to bring life jackets, passports, clothing and medications. Dion and his wife also thought to don their wet suits, which proved to be a wise decision. When the Nai’a’s engines couldn’t drive the ship off the reef, crew members tried to push it free with two inflatable dive skiffs. One skiff got punctured and the crew had to be pulled from the churning sea as the skiff turned turtle. The second inflatable developed a leak, and skipper Jonathan Smith decided to evacuate the passengers to the nearby deserted island.

The crew helped passengers into the limping skiff and took them to shore through five-foot surf. “All we could see was foam as waves broke over the inflatable,” recalls Dion. “It’s a miracle someone didn’t drown.” Three crew members accompanied the passengers ashore, toting blankets and emergency rations. The inflatable nearly sank as crewmen returned to the Nai’a.

Doc Epstein (Key West, FL) recalls that after he and the other passengers were unloaded, the crew “went into the watery cabins to gather our belongings. That shows their loyalty and professionalism.” Adds passenger Paul Duhamel (San Francisco), “Their courage, tireless determination, and resilience make them true heroes to us.”

Dion, an experienced yachtsman, faults the captain for putting out only one anchor and for not starting the engine until after the boat was aground. But he, too, acknowledged, “I must give credit to the Fijian crew.”

After twelve rainy hours huddled under a banyan tree, the passengers were picked up by local boatmen who transported them to a sailing yacht that had responded to the Nai’a’s Mayday call. They and their luggage were then transferred to Sandy Beach Resort.

A week later, a salvage team finally managed to lift the Nai’a off the reef and began towing her, with both vessels chained to a barge that had gone in close to the reef to enable the salvage. But the three-ship convoy was hit by another freak storm with 40-50 knot winds. The rescue barge, being towed by the MV Hifofua, was swamped and began to submerge, threatening to pull down the Hifofua and the Nai’a with her. The barge was cut loose and sank, with five men escaping in a dinghy.

Eventually the Nai’a reached her home port in Fiji. Two charters were cancelled, but the Nai’a was repaired in time for her first scheduled charter back in Fiji on September 20.

The Tonga passengers were offered refunds or credits for future trips and Barrel covered their food and lodging at Sandy Beach. (Some were there five days waiting for connecting flights.) As Barrel’s staff continued to find personal belongings, they informed clients by email and offered to ship the items. Ron Dion estimates that he lost about $2,000 worth of stuff, including personal electronic gear that may have been ruined by salt water. The Nai’a’s insurance only covered the ship’s hull damage, according to Dion. He carries two separate topof- the-line dive-accident policies -- PADI Platinum and DAN Preferred – but discovered that neither covered his lost possessions.

DAN’s dive-accident insurance only covers scuba gear lost while diving. PADI’s coverage is limited to belongings lost as the result of medical transportation. Both policies offer maximum payouts of $2500. DAN, DEPP and other insurers offer separate dive equipment policies, and some homeowners insurance will cover personal losses away from home.

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