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Dismasted in the Pacific: The Story of ‘Niniwahuni’

Early last month we were alerted to a situation in which a family had been dismasted at sea. We learned about it through a GoFundMe campaign set up by a family friend. Upon investigation we heard the harrowing yet inspirational story of the five sailors from California.

On March 13, 2023, Shawna and Travis Nicolet and their three children set sail from La Cruz, Mexico, toward French Polynesia, on their “dream voyage.” Two weeks later the dream became a nightmare, as a series of events led to their vessel’s being dismasted and adrift in the Pacific.

Before leaving the dock, the couple had completed reams of paperwork and provisioned their Westsail 43 Niniwahuni with several months’ supply of food and water. The vessel itself was the result of an extensive refit, and a years-long goal of sailing the world. When the world shut down in 2020, completing the boat became the couple’s major occupation. Shawna could recount each individual item she had worked on to turn their boat into a home: “Every cushion was cut and sewn by us, every inch of the sole sanded and stained, every locker sanded and painted.” The memories surfaced while Shawna was at the helm of their disabled vessel, trying to come to grips with the thought that they were about to lose their home.

Despite having had regular weather routing updates, Niniwahuni was encompassed by a storm. Winds of 30+ knots and 15-ft seas had caused irreparable damage. The first casualty was the traveler, which had broken apart and thrown the boom into the shrouds. It was likely this incident that led to the boat’s dismasting just a few hours later. The mast fell across the solar panels mounted above the cockpit, missing Travis by inches. While Shawna took the helm, Travis raced to free the mast, which had now rolled off the port side and was grinding against the hull.

Shawna sent out an SOS and alerted family, who held the boat’s float plan. The US Coast Guard was notified and diverted a tanker to come to Niniwahuni’s aid. Assuming they would now have to abandon their vessel, the couple considered everything they would have to leave behind. “[An] intense moment of emotions flooded my body, realizing the dream is now lying in the water, grinding against our hull,” Travis recalled. Yet, hours later, Shawna and Travis would find themselves parting ways, not with their boat, but with each other. After Shawna and the three children had safely boarded the tanker, an almost last-minute decision saw Travis push away from the enormous hull and embark on a days-long singlehanded journey to a small island that lies approximately 700 miles from mainland Mexico.

Niniwahuni adrift
Niniwahuni drifts in the Pacific as help approaches.
© 2023 Sv Ayrun

Along the way half a dozen or so vessels found their way to Niniwahuni, bringing Travis much-needed fuel, engine parts, and the comfort of knowing he wasn’t alone.

Ultimatley, Niniwahuni was saved, and Shawna and Travis and their children are again together, rebuilding their home and their dream. The happy outcome could have been otherwise, and the family is grateful for the network of cruisers, both at sea and ashore, who worked together to help bring their family and their boat home.

This is just an inkling of the ordeal these five sailors faced, and we’ll be sharing the full story in Latitude 38‘s June issue which hits the docks tomorrow.

17 Comments

  1. Ken brinkley 12 months ago

    Guts and determination!

  2. David britton 12 months ago

    I’m so glad not only you survived but you saved the boat. So many times in these situations the boat gets left behind.

  3. Karen 12 months ago

    They have the story on you tube. Very watchable. I’m so glad they have been reunited and are safe.

  4. Mike 12 months ago

    Thinking that battery powered portable grinder to cut free rigging and jury rig mast , rigging and jury sail are a must

    • Ian flannery 12 months ago

      Bolt crops be better.I have a battery grinder but it goes flat over time. Hopefully I will never need to use it.

  5. Lawrence Mills 12 months ago

    That’s what you call a story book ending with a vigor to rebuild their dream. Awesome!!!

  6. Shelly 12 months ago

    1st saw this in an interview with Colin from Parlay Revival. So happy with the ending!!!

  7. Linda Newland 12 months ago

    Glad it turned out well. My one and last delivery of a Westsail 32 from Hawaii to the West Coast was enough to convince me I’d never sail one again no matter the length. Others will disagree esp those who like traditional boats to overall fin keel performance boats.

    • Kevin Lee 12 months ago

      Linda , did you once own a Yamaha 33 ? I sold that boat to a couple from Australia . They sailed the boat from San Diego back to Oz , no problem !

  8. Joe 12 months ago

    Irreparable damage ? Please don’t exaggerate Monica

    • Monica Grant 12 months ago

      Joe, thanks for reading. It’s possible to believe, from the comfort of our keyboards, that we’d be able to repair or jury rig a dismasted Westsail 43 in the middle of rough weather with our wife and three very young children aboard but, in our minds, the boat was irreparable at the time. That they managed to safely evacuate the family and return the boat to shore for later repair is miraculous. Many others have recognized the boat could have been abandoned or scuttled. It’s hard for us to judge from a distance what skills someone might possess to repair the damage, but we suppose it’s possible. In the meantime we’ll stick with irreparable. You can read the full story in this month’s issue.

  9. Aaron 12 months ago

    Since this vessel fell apart in 30+knot winds and 15 ft seas witch is normal bad weather tells me the refit was amateur and the idea was a dangerous dream.so glad the children were saved.

    • Shan C 12 months ago

      Amen. Rightfully stated.

  10. Shan C 12 months ago

    How many ocean crossings in a 50 year old boat had they made prior to taking their children with them. Mother Ocean does not respect contempt.

    • John Arndt 12 months ago

      Shan/Aaron – even someone who’s done a dozen or more crossings on 50-year-old boats has to start with their first one. There are numerous 50+ year-old boats taking their owners on safe passages around the world every day. As you suggest most sailors are humble in front of mother nature knowing back luck and misfortune can happen to the most experienced sailors on the best prepared boats. Humbleness learned at sea causes many to pause before rushing to judgement.

      When commenting on other people’s misfortune we like to think of ourselves as sitting at a bar with them having a beer and being able to ask questions to better understand and able to learn from whatever happened. In the recent edition of The Ocean Race both Holcim PRB and Guyot Environment dismasted in conditions that may not have been a problem for many or most fifty year old boats. Conversely we we just had the Master Mariners race on San Francisco Bay where conditions often hit 30 knots and are handled by boats such as the 130+ year old Folly and 100-year-old Bird boats. The Ocean Race boats have all the skill, knowledge, budget and technology possible aboard recently built boats demonstrates to us these things can happen to anyone at any time.

      Our story gave us all a perspective on the hard work they put into their boat prior to departure and both the misfortune that befell them and good fortune they had as a result of their good planning and level-headed response. The sailing community responded heroically as they always do since other cruisers and ships at sea know the next time it could be them. There are many inexperienced sailors that survive by dumb luck and experienced sailors who are lost when struck by bad luck. There’s a point where, in retrospect, some voyages might be reckless but it would be hard for us to make decisions about what boats and people are capable of going but we salute all those who choose to pursue their dreams.

  11. Shan C 12 months ago

    I agree that everyone must start with a first voyage. I also agree that trouble can befall even the best prepared vessel. After 50 years of voyaging across oceans I have found that tragedy most likely encounters those less prepared than those that are experienced and fully prepared. Adding children to the voyage requires a state of readiness that few amature sailors possess . Not saying that is the case in this situation. Maybe it was purely bad luck. Thank God the children are safe. And thank God for the professional mariners that saved them.

  12. Phil Gibson 12 months ago

    A well founded and respected cruising vessel, shrouds and fixtures can cause problems if not taking into account of forces, up the specs of all if going offshore ie,mast section, each shroud strength same as the chain plates and hull attachments equal to weight of vessel (take notes of offshore and not coastal min requirements)

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