TANDA MALAIKA: Lost on an “Unmarked” Reef in French Polynesia

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Tanda wrecked from air

I noticed this story a few days ago and finally found the time to study the available facts. This takes some concentration as the writing style of Belinda Govatos, the sailor/blogger who suffered through these events with her family and diligently recorded them on her website, Adventures of a Tribe, doesn’t seem to involve paragraphs. The story begins on the night of July 18, when according to Belinda’s account her husband Danny was keeping close watch on deck while she prepared dinner as their Leopard 46 catamaran Tanda Malaika, outbound from Mo’orea in French Polynesia, approached the atoll of Huahine.

“We were moving at a speed of about 8-9 knots,” she wrote, “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.”

The family was evacuated by helicopter that very night and on reaching safety ashore Belinda was questioned by the local authorities:

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?

Navionics has responded to this in a comment to a report on Noonsite, spouting the predictable palaver about not over-relying on single sources of information and not approaching reefs at night. Lectronic Latitude, meanwhile, has done some deeper dissection, noting it may be that Navionics charts running on an iPad are more accurate than Navionics charts running on a dedicated chartplotter. Which seems perverse, I have to say.

Plotting the GPS wreck coordinates cited by Belinda in her blog – 16°49’47” S, 150°59’41” W – we see that the reef in question, though its precise position may not have been accurately charted, most certainly can’t have been unanticipated. It is a very major reef and totally encircles the islands that make up Huahine.

Wreck sat location

Google satellite image showing location of wreck site at the southern end of the reef around Hauhine

Huahine map

Map of Huahine with reefs shown

Mo’orea, from whence came Tanda Malaika, is southeast of Huahine. Presumably skipper Danny was trying to clear the southern corner of the atoll reef and then planned to move up its western lee side to Fare, which is the local capital. What we don’t know is how far off the reef he thought he was when his boat hit the bricks.

Helo hoist

One of the “creatures,” as Belinda fondly calls her children, is hauled up off the boat into a helicopter the night of the wreck. Not a scene any mother wants to witness!

On the reef

Tanda Malaika up on the reef come daylight

Gear removal

Gone are the days when you can just leave a wreck on a reef. With the help of other cruisers the crew of Tanda Malaika worked for days to remove everything of value from their boat. Having determined the wreck could not be refloated and refit, they were then expected to hire a salvage crew to pull the boat off the reef and sink it in deep water, at an anticipated cost of at least $35K US

Hatches off

Removing hatches

Naked helm

The helm station with all offending electronics and other gear stripped off

My own best practice now is to run at least two different sets of electronic charts–one (or two, if you count the free government charts now included with Navionics packages) on my iPad and another on a dedicated plotter–plus follow along on a regular paper chart. The best thing about electronic charts, I’ve found, is that they make it much easier to carry entirely different sets of charts for any given locale. I love to take advantage of this. Comparing different charts to each other you soon realize how often they disagree with each other, and this does tend to inspire caution when navigating.

On electronic charts you also do need to zoom in and out on areas of interest, as different sorts of information may be deleted from charts at different zoom levels (remember, for example, the Vestas Wind disaster in the last Volvo race). And, yes, you do need to bear in mind that all charts based on an originally inaccurate survey will themselves be inaccurate. Just because satellites can pinpoint your position doesn’t mean the positions of hazards on the charts you are looking at, even the electronic ones, have been plotted with similar accuracy.

Bottom line: I agree with Navionics that they can’t really be held to blame for this accident. I would say, however, given the statement made to Belinda Govatos by the local powers-that-be on Huahine, they have definitely been put on notice that there’s a big problem with their cartography in that area.

Once a chart publisher knows its product is inaccurate, there is a very good argument to be made they then have a responsibility to correct the error. Garmin, which has continued to publish the famous magenta line on its charts of the ICW, even after the government deleted the line from its charts because it was deemed misleading, is currently a defendant in a lawsuit that raises this very issue. You can read all about it in this fascinating Passagemaker post by Peter Swanson, who is being called as a witness in the case.

The skipper in this case was not entirely blameless. He was running the magenta line on his Garmin chartplotter down the St. Lucie channel at 21 knots (a powerboater, of course). Even when the line took him wrong side of a channel marker, he didn’t think to slow down, and his wife unfortunately suffered grievous injuries when they ran aground at speed. Still, I’ll be surprised if Garmin walks away from this litigation unscathed.

(All photos here are from Adventures of a Tribe)

ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: It is bad enough that Russian hackers have saddled us with this ridiculous president; now they are attacking my website! Very early this a.m. I was swamped with thousands of messages sent through this site from some Russian source (in Russian, no less). I had to turn off the Contact Charles buttons on the site to stem the flood. Don’t know how long they’ll be down. Meanwhile, we can chat through the comments section if you like.

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14 Responses
  1. Nick

    I like your comment about comparing 2 electronic & 1 paper chart, and seeing how much inaccuracy there is.
    A lot of stuff to compare.
    I do paper charts only.
    Guess there are lots of old arguments pro & con. Won’t bother with this.
    Great article.

  2. Neil

    Perhaps the iPad version of Navionics show the reef because the iPad display has a MUCH better resolution than all but the very best chart plotters. Also, notice that Navionics on the iPad accepts user updates and comments, and distributes them on the Internet. I do not think chart plotter updates are so easy

  3. Ted Simper

    We sailed to Huahini from Morea in 2014 using Navionics. The reef was clearly marked, and it was dark, so we stood off 2-4 miles as we transited the coast. It is silly to expect any chart electronic or otherwise to be absolutely accurate down to a few meters. Good seamanship requires allowing for error, particularly at night.

  4. K Davie

    Great article until your administrative note that got political for no reason.

    No one in this age can afford not to be political. There is simply too much at stake.

  5. Rick Gard

    yes, it is informative to have two or more sets of chart data. I bought a refurb iPhone 6+, pulled out the SIM and use only the GPS, bought $89 worth of NV charts and then compared that to a navionics in my iPhone7 and the Garmin charts in the Garmin plotter onboard the delivery boat. There are a lot of subtle discrepancies, and different charts showed different AtoNs and light specs.
    I rarely use my old paper charts anymore.

  6. wmgysi@gmail.com

    Another source of information is to use Google Earth and chart the area using GE2Kap, a free program that transfers the Google Earth screens to Kap files that can be displayed using for example Open CPN. It at least will show where the island is and doing a passage at night I would not close in more than 5nm in any case.

  7. Barb

    We hit a small reef at Bermuda at night using our Garmin chart plotter. Luckily no damage. Chart was off by 1/2 mile. We were staying off the reef until dawn but had arrived before daylight. These charts are getting better but we still find significant errors. We now use Navionics on the IPad as our backup. It’s been good so far (5 years). We anchored on land at Symi, Greece a couple of nights ago via Garmin. Just a funny, but Garmin did not have the islands Homer wrote about 3000 years ago on their Italian chart. Without the IPad I would have hit those too!

  8. Damon Gannon

    “Use all of the navigation tools you have, but trust none of them.” This wisdom was given to me by the captain of a research vessel I worked on almost 25 years ago. The scientists who had chartered the boat brought a brand new GPS plotter with them. When returning to port in a blinding snow storm, they couldn’t understand why were painstakingly plotting our route on a paper chart rather than just following the line on the chart plotter. When we arrived safely at the dock, one of the scientists pointed out that the plotter showed that we had crossed a dangerous shoal. The captain insisted that the plotter was wrong, and it became a point of contention. But when we left the harbor under clear skies the following morning, we went straight down the center of the channel and the plotter still showed us going over a shoal. If we had relied on the plotter, we would have run aground. Clearly, electronic charts have come a long way since 1992. But the lesson is still relevant. Don’t ever rely on a single source of information.

  9. Larry Hamilton

    We were in French Polynesia on the island of Raitea, just a few miles west of Huahine when this occurred. It’s always tragic to hear these stories. I feel that the bottom line here is that the skipper was too close to the reef regardless of the charts used or whether in daylight or darkness. We used Navionics charts on Ipad, CMap on plotter, and Cmap93 on Open Cpn. We found that from Florida through to Tonga, the Navionics charts were the most accurate, but not perfect. All the charts were off by 1.5 nm when we anchored at Beveridge reef. Sadly, several weeks later, another catamaran ran into that reef in the middle of the night on a blustery sail from Raratonga in the Cook Islands to Niue. Luckily all persons were rescued and are safely in Tonga.

  10. Steve

    Using KAP files is essential in less developed parts of the world. Coming up from Australia Navionics (app and chart plotter were spot on) In Indonesia they were totally useless, we eventually used the iSailor app and their charts were a breath of fresh air. Apparently they bought the charts from the Indonesian hydrographic office… Even so we still use them with KAP files and always approach harbours at daybreak. Nothing beats the MKI eyeball and common sense. Very sad and traumatic for those involved but modern electronics is giving confidence for the less inexperienced to venture offshore.

  11. commenteroftheday

    [quote=Yvonne]Great article until your administrative note that got political for no reason.

    No one in this age can afford not to be political. There is simply too much at stake.[/quote]

    You must not believe that thousands of years have gone before you…it’s okay, most people have a narrow view…There is no more at stake now then before…you just think there is because you are thinking of yourself. I am now less interested in reading Mr. Doane’s writings. No, I’m not a supporter of the man he denegrates I’m just not interested in people that spout BS.

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