When Cyclone Pam left Blue Gold high and dry in Vanuatu, you’d have been forgiven for thinking her sailing days were over. But, says Kate Lardy, all is not lost
Like many sailors and captains, Nixon Sarai thought he could keep his vessel safe during a hurricane if he stayed on board. It wasn’t “his” yacht per se. Working on board Blue Gold, a 50 metre Benetti motor sailer, for six years at that point, he was her caretaker, hired by the owner to look after her in her home port of Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.
Blue Gold was no weekend warrior. The 360 gross tonne steel hull yacht had been through at least two hurricanes before: one at sea in the Indian Ocean where she pounded through 15 metre seas, and one four years earlier in Port Vila, which ended in her being temporarily grounded. The granddaddy of the big Perini Navis that came later, she was a trailblazer in explorer sailing yachts. Since her launch in 1982, she had circled the world and had spent the previous seven years on 1,000 nautical mile journeys to New Zealand and Fiji.
Also no stranger to storms, Sarai was born and raised in this remote South Pacific archipelago that weathers cyclones so regularly. He thought he knew what to expect, but what Mother Nature dished out the night of 13 March 2015 was like nothing anyone in Vanuatu had ever experienced before.
With a skeleton crew of five on board, and in the relative shelter of Havannah Harbour, tucked on the north-west corner of the main island of Efate and facing the smaller Moso Island to the west, he made sure he dug in both anchors deep. “I did my best to secure the boat, then we waited. People kept calling me saying, ‘Get out, get out, why are you staying on the boat?’ The wind got strong and I’m thinking I shouldn’t be on the boat.” But by then it was too late.
Cyclone Pam struck as a Category 5 storm, the most powerful and dangerous there is. As its eye skimmed past Efate, nearby Port Vila was enduring sustained winds of 250km/h. Yachts secured on moorings in Port Vila harbour fell like pins in a bowling alley, one crashing into the next. Havannah Harbour is only about two and a half kilometres across at most, but the south-east winds stirred up the protected water into huge five metre swells, Sarai estimates. “I felt like I was in the open sea."
“By 9.30pm the wind was really, really strong. I commanded the crew to stay together on board; no one was to go outside. They were panicking, they thought they were going to die.”
He tried to rally them, telling them that they were a team and that they had to think they were going to make it together. But the storm was still growing at that point, winds gusting to more than 320km/h. At 10.30pm Blue Gold was struck by Tukoro, a navy patrol boat. It was the kiss of death. The boat hit the yacht at the bow, breaking her starboard anchor chain. At 11.30pm, the port anchor gave up and Blue Gold hit the reef. Around midnight, at the height of the storm, a set of three giant swells carried the massive yacht to shore.
When daylight broke, Sarai, thanking God that he was still alive, was astounded to discover the yacht’s location. She had been deposited higher than anyone thought possible on the beach on Moso island. The crew survived the night – now the question became: could the yacht survive the grounding?
More than three years have passed since that fateful Friday the 13th and Blue Gold still languishes on the beach. Why she hasn’t yet been pulled off and refloated isn’t quite clear. “Part of the delay is that it’s been logistically challenging,” says Sean Meagher, who served as captain from 2008 to 2011. He has a close relationship with the owner’s family, so when the son called him 10 months ago while Meagher was doing a refit in New Zealand and asked him to check on the boat, he didn’t hesitate.
“It’s not like it is aground in New Zealand or even the Philippines, where they have great infrastructure,” says Meagher. “You don’t have the infrastructure and the tools without mounting a major operation. They’re waiting for tugboat availability now and it’s ‘island time’ to the umpteenth extreme.”
Meanwhile, Sarai’s team has been fending off visitors, ranging from curious onlookers to aggressive salvagers. This local support is what Meagher credits for the boat’s surprisingly good condition now. “Honestly, I was shocked when I looked at it,” says Meagher. “I thought it was going to be a complete disaster, but the crew has been taking good care of it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s bad, but it’s not a derelict.” He went inside and found it dry, the hull and fuel tanks intact.
Meagher joined the yacht 10 years after the current owner purchased White Gull, renamed her Blue Gold and refitted her at RDM, a submarine facility in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The yard work added a lot of redundancy, according to Meagher, so the yacht could continue exploring the world – which she did with the owner’s children and a tutor in tow. “He’s an adventurer in his own way,” says Meagher. “He definitely plays by his own rules… as do all of these guys; that’s what makes him successful.”
When Meagher first arrived in Vanuatu in 2008, he made a point of cultivating good relationships with the locals. “We really tried to be ambassadors. We’d host lunches for the government and tribal chiefs on board and did a project for the National Bank of Vanuatu, where we went to the remotest places and built satellite dishes, almost pro bono.
“Never disrespect their culture,” he advises. “That is a critical error for guys in my position. When an incident happens, you’re going to need local help.”
This philosophy came in handy when Blue Gold first went aground in Port Vila during a storm in 2011. Meagher had just left the boat but flew back to assist. “The local government knew me and it was a relatively easy process dealing with them. And that’s why the boat’s been allowed to stay on the beach as long as it has, because of those relationships.”
That doesn’t mean everyone’s OK with the yacht sitting there indefinitely, though. In June 2017, the chiefs of Moso and Sunae, the village nearest to Blue Gold, wrote to parliament to ask when the government would be removing the yacht. Sarai says that while Sunae is enjoying 60,000 vatu (approximately €470) each month from Blue Gold to develop the village, the chief is concerned about the environmental impact to the reef and harbour since the yacht has been there for so long.
The government’s response was that it had no legal right to remove Blue Gold. The Minister of Infrastructure and Public Utilities, Jotham Napat, cited the Ports Act, as quoted in the Vanuatu Daily Post in an article written by Jane Joshua: “In any event which involves a wreckage, the Act does not have clear provisions for the Department of Ports and Harbour to address the issue. According to the current Act, this is the sole responsibility of the owner of the vessel.” The minister went on to say that they are looking at amending the Shipping Act to enable the government to remove wreckages after a predetermined deadline.
Meanwhile, the owner of this particular wreckage was entangled in an unrelated legal battle on the other side of the world, which may have added to the delay. He fully intends to remove her, though. Speaking through Meagher, he says the plan is to do a refit next year and sail the world again. “She is a magnificent lady. She has treated us all very well and deserves to have fun again,” the owner adds.
“It was a big part of the owner’s children’s childhoods,” expounds Meagher, “and now that they’re adults, they want to rekindle that for their own children.”
During all this time, Blue Gold might appear to be ripe for salvage picking. She has caught the eye of at least one yacht owner looking to add to his fleet of conservation charter yachts. Federico Angermeyer, resident of the Galápagos where he operates motor yacht Passion and the tall ship Mary Anne, has experience rescuing abandoned yachts and has admired Blue Gold since he first saw a brokerage listing more than a decade ago.
He searched online for her more recently and came across the piece in the Daily Post by Joshua and decided to pay the yacht a surprise visit last January. Using Google Earth, on which the yacht is clearly visible, as his guide, he arrived by water from Efate to a not-so-warm reception from Sarai’s vigilant crew, who are well versed in keeping visitors away. They did put him in touch with Sarai, though, and he subsequently corresponded with the owner’s son but not to the end he hoped for – not with salvage rights. He now has his lawyer looking into whether the yacht can be considered legally abandoned.
But maritime attorney Michael Moore says the fact that the owner has hired a crew to protect the boat indicates he has not abandoned it. “The vessel is not up for grabs as long as the owner has not abandoned it and the owner has the right to refuse offers of salvage,” says Moore. “For voluntary salvage, the vessel has to be ‘in peril’,” which in these circumstances, according to Moore, it is not.
The opposite of voluntary salvage is contract salvage and to this end, Blue Gold’s owner has engaged a local salvager who’s been waiting for the highest of the high tides and using float bags, anchors and winches. “They’re really trying to be respectful of the environment, taking their time by floating it and not damaging the reef on the way out,” says Meagher. Making matters worse, the yacht’s swing keel had dropped and embedded itself in the coral. “They had to get inside there and jack the keel back up in the box.”
But very little progress has been made, according to Sarai, who says the next step requires the government tugboat; the owner is currently waiting on a quote for the cost.
In talking with Meagher, it’s clear that he has a soft spot for Blue Gold. He enjoyed what he calls the quintessential South Pacific adventure on her, complete with romance, volcanoes and savages. He laughs when he says the yacht almost killed him three times. “But on the flip side, that boat never let me down."
“I never pushed a boat as hard as I pushed that boat. I punched it through some of the biggest seas that I’ve ever seen, it just kept coming back for more,” says the well-travelled captain, who took his last yacht through the Northwest Passage – twice. “It’s just a great boat.”
He recalls the time he left Auckland on Blue Gold somewhat under the gun to make a New Year charter in Vanuatu. “We went right into a 10 metre wave. All of a sudden, we’re going downhill and I’m thinking, this is going to suck; then boom, we submarined it. I’d never submarined a boat before and it wasn’t that bad; it just kept trucking.
“It’s funny,” he continues, “wherever we went I would run into past crew members. I’d never been on a boat where so many people would come up to me with so many fond memories. The adventures they had and the abuse that this poor boat took was just staggering,” he says with a laugh. Perhaps that’s why, despite the lengthy time beached on Moso island, this doesn’t feel like the end of the story for Blue Gold.
“It has nine lives like you wouldn’t believe. The boat’s a tank,” says Meagher. “There are a lot of people that would like to see it rise from the ashes one more time.”
This feature is taken from the September 2018 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.SHOP NOW