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

6 Aug

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)

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.


This article was syndicated from Wavetrain


  1. Geoff

    Those who have never read Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World”….should. Here’s a retired sea captain who was able to rebuild an old wooden boat himself, by hand, then circumnavigate it using a SEXTANT, some basic charts, a traf log, and his brains. He would carry cargo along to make some money between ports, lecture to clubs and groups, showing ‘lantern slides’, to make a little money, and never piled up the boat on any reef, jetty, or ‘uncharted’ pile of rocks anyplace (as I recall from the book), because he used something called SEAMANSHIP. That quality has been lost upon a lot of contemporary sailors who rely on advanced gear to think for them, unfortunately. You need to be prepared for ANYTHING at sea, because she is unforgiving of bad judgment and stupidity.

  2. Vítek

    Hi it is very sad…One time we were sailing from Italy to Croatia,and we misjudged the wether we were 19/22 and hade lods of experience with sailing racing but not seas…we hade storm and huge wavesaround 20/30 feet…we were all sea sick and didnt eat for 2 days because the yacht vas old and heavy it did not go fast and it vas really crazy ,it was like these super fast lifts,many times we thoughr that we will not make it up the wave…anyway even th we did not sllep for two days and were sick all the time,at night before we came to dubrovnik i sudenly was not sure if we are close to shore and because of the lights on shore it can mess with your senses,i wouk up y brother and at 2 am in total dark were spinning on the spot for 20 minutes before we made sure that we hade probably 5/8 miles to go…i would say i almost could toucht the trees in few 10s of meters …so i dont judge anyone but at 2 am after some 10/20 hour sail and in the row seas anything could happend…now im saiving money to go around the world with my familly and hope to buy somewere around 80 feet and hope that this will not happend to us or anyone …Good luck to allof You Vítek

  3. Stacy

    How did they not hear or see the surf hitting the reef? I have sailed this very spot, and even at night, you can see the white of the surf hitting the reef from both the lagoon and outside the reef…and you can most definitely hear it, even with the engines on. Perhaps taking the long sail from Moorea to Huahine impaired their judgement and senses?

  4. Brent Cook

    Sorry to hear about the boat truly. What a loss. I was thinking about purchasing a Cat but changed my mind recently. I love Cats.. Truly sad seeing that beautiful boat lost in that way. I have always wondered about Garmins and other gps navigators. My Garmin once sent me down a dead end road and told me to continue driving into a ditch.. Luckly I stopped. Technology is a great tool but people sometimes blurr the line between us controlling technology and it controlling us. Wait till one of these selfing driving cars kill someone.

  5. Wave Dancer

    Yes during the years I was cruising, I sailed contless times over “land” according to my charts! I used also Navionics AND hard copies from Bellingham (SE-Asia)! None were always accurate!
    Seamanship must include cautiousness at all times, but no one is 100% save from disaster!

  6. Jorge Ventura

    That people would sail so close to a reef with their eyes on a screen and then call the reef “uncharted” is almost unbelievable. A true seaman would always give that reef a wide berth and trust his eyes before coming any close.

  7. Sam

    As Hillary Clinton would say “What difference does it make now”. It happened and at that point there is not much which can be accomplished by pointing fingers at the skipper or at the mapping technology. My only thought is why weren’t air bags used to float the vessel so it could be towed back to shore and repaired? If all available interior spaced could have been filled with air bag, empty jugs etc.with enough air bags and buoyancy inside of it ___ it could have been towed back to shore. My thought is it could have been towed off and as it was being towed off once it was clear of the reef more air bags could have been inflated under the hulls. Maybe it could have been floated back to shore rather than putting all that time, effort and money into sinking it. It seems all their time, money and efforts went towards scuttling it in deeper water. We will never know if employing such recovery efforts would have worked, since they were not attempted.

  8. Harry Whittelsey

    A electronic chart plotter had just been installed on myboat we were using it after the installation Were Sailing East Intending to sail Fisher island sound. Off Watch Hill, I suddenly realized there were boulders in front of the bows. I jibed heading east surrounded by boulders a hundred feet later we were clear of them, looked at the damn chart plotter to learn It wasn’t zoomed in enough! Outrageous! Never trust any chart plotter without looking at paper charts first! They’re terrible in tight situations.

  9. Michael C

    Well apparently the “administrative note” has been removed because it’s no where to be found. Was it that bad?

  10. BruceT

    Sorry to hear about this incident and am glad that no one was injured. I was also happy to learn that they did not simply leave the boat on the reef as may have been done in the past. A few years ago, I chartered a boat in St. Martin, and while passing miles west of Forchue, the dedicated plotter had us aground on the island. We were sailing during the day, kept a good look out, and were able to sail by line of sight. I lost faith in electronic chart plotters as a result of that experience, however. Lesson learned and reinforced by this unfortunate story. B.

  11. Ron Holt

    I’ve run Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, South Florida and the Bahamas with many stories to tell of incendents with sailing my 32′ Endeavor twenty plus years (no losses, but close calls). I agree with multi charting, Radar/Sonar, high power search lights and a demeanour to approach reefs, breakwalls and inlets with caution: certainly at night. No disrespect to savvy sailors in the South Pacific, but running at 8-9 knots toward a reef at night with the jib up, was not correct.. it should have been 3-4 knots engine only, with everyone in a safety position and working the nav charts, soundings and visual site. The second scenario would give a better opportunity to “hopefully” avoid a crash/grounding. There comes the old adage of when we practiced man overboard retrieval with all crew.. practice reef approaches with different sea and time of day conditions. Thanks for listening..new to commenting.
    : The old “Summerway”.

  12. Pete

    Folks, always use two sources of navigation! Always stay 2 miles from any possible obstructions.
    And NEVER cut corners at NIGHT!

  13. Greg Dickson

    This incident shows precisely why the passage from Moorea – Huahine is normally sailed at night. Depart Moorea in the afternoon WHEN YOU CAN SEE. Time arrival at Huahine for next morning WHEN YOU CAN SEE. This seems like a case of “I’ve got a fast boat and I can do this in daylight” ‘Over-cockiness Syndrome”. This is NOT about hitting some uncharted reef. This is “Ooops! I hit Huahine.”

  14. Doug

    Completely agree, reefs are living things, not simply immovable mountains, sand bottoms are constantly moving and the source for charts can be as old as Captain Cook. If you look at the reference for many charts it shows that many areas have not been resurveyed for dozens of years. Boats are not cars, we don’t travel on fixed highways. Unfortunately, I think people’s implicit trust of technology, which is only growing, can be many people’s undoing. One thing that could help is that some things, like free satellite imagery, which clearly shows the break in the reef in this particular case, can be overlayed with software packages such as OPENCPN.

  15. Peter Hinzer

    Quiet true about Navionics and other charts , SW Carribean
    mayor flaws in Reef areas, it is always advisable to consult
    Cruisers ” who have been there ” and listen to cruisers net ”
    on SSB about ” advice ” .Have at least information from
    Two different sources,
    Fair winds Peter H. , yacht :” Rendezvous 2 “

  16. Ron

    Your administrative note may have been an attempt at humor but not appreciated in this wheelhouse.

  17. Ben hur

    Charles, you ruined a this article with your “note”. I’ve never heard of you and never will read another thing you right. Your victim mentality is sad. Blame yourself.

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