In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, two sailors are enjoying the trip of a lifetime. Suddenly, a mass of rock appears to rear up from nowhere, threatening to run their yacht aground. However, it isn’t land that they’ve discovered; it’s the first sign of an incredible phenomenon that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
Swedish sailor Frederik Fransson had been living in San Francisco, California, for almost a decade when he decided that he was ready for a change. After quitting his job, then, he persuaded his uncle, Håkan, to join him on an epic 6,000-nautical-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean.
On April 20, 2006, the two men set sail on Fransson’s 36-foot yacht, Maiken. Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, they began the first leg of a journey that would eventually take them all the way to Australia. But for the next three weeks, they traveled southwest across the open ocean.
Finally, they arrived on Nuku Hiva, part of French Polynesia’s remote Marquesas archipelago. After spending much of June and July sailing around the region, they landed on the island of Vava’u. From there, they set off for Fiji on the penultimate leg of their voyage.
For almost four months, their journey had been filled with challenges. Indeed, the seas were rough, their food supplies were limited and the on-board amenities were few and far between. However, nothing could have prepared the two men for what lay in wait near Late Island, a volcanic outcrop off the coast of Vava’u.
On August 11, 2006, the pair set sail from the harbor of Neiafu without any indication of the drama that awaited them. Just five miles into their journey, however, they noticed something strange about the water. Bizarrely, it seemed to have transformed from deep blue to a greenish color, similar to the waters found in lagoons.
Then, as the Maiken turned west, Fransson and Håkan received an even bigger surprise. Suddenly, it seemed as if the Pacific Ocean had disappeared, replaced by inexplicable swathes of stone. “We looked out, and in front of us it was as if there was no more sea,” Fransson explained in a 2007 interview with Discover magazine.
“It was like the Sahara, with rolling hills of sand as far as the eye could see,” he continued. In fact, the Maiken had sailed headlong into a vast belt of pumice stones. According to Håkan, the phenomenon was many miles wide, causing the sailors to reduce their speed to just one knot.
After floating several hundred feet through the surreal mass of stones, Fransson and Håkan became concerned about the damage they could do to the Maiken’s engine. So they decided to head back, thinking that they were leaving this strange sight behind. However, what they had seen turned out to be just a taste of what the future had in store.
As they inspected the yacht, Fransson and Håkan noted that the stones had scraped away some paint from the hull. As Håkan wrote on Fransson’s blog, Frederik and Crew on Maiken, it was “like we’d sailed through sandpaper.” Wanting to avoid further damage, they consequently steered a course east away from the rocks.
However, the crew of the Maiken weren’t out of danger yet. Indeed, unbeknownst to experts around the world, an incredible event was taking place just a couple of miles away. It transpired that the sudden appearance of the mass of stones had been caused by a volcanic eruption that had resulted in a violent upheaval in the seabed.
What they saw next, then, must have shocked them to the core. Although they were used to seeing clouds over the South Pacific, this time the skies had an ominous appearance. “We saw a black pillar shooting up in the air,” Fransson explained. “We understood that it had to be a volcano.”
Fascinated, Fransson and Håkan sailed the Maiken closer in order to get a better look. However, as they approached, they couldn’t believe their eyes. Where their charts assured them that there should have been nothing but empty water, an island had suddenly appeared. And it was growing bigger before their eyes.
“It was kind of a smoldering, smoky stuff,” Fransson recalled. “It looked like coal, and when there was an eruption, we could see the new material piling up on it.” Amazingly, the pair had witnessed the creation of a new volcanic island – and they were probably the first people on Earth to see it.
From a distance, the pair observed the island, estimating it to be around a mile wide. There were four peaks, each of which periodically spewed ash and lava into the air, surrounding a central crater. On his blog, Håkan imagined the new island being named after the two men who’d discovered it.
After posting reports online about what they had seen, Fransson and Håkan subsequently continued on their way to Fiji. In the scientific community, however, the excitement was just beginning. Although experts estimate that dozens of similar eruptions occur every year, they rarely take place in locations where humans can observe them.
“We decided right then that we needed to get in there and get some satellite data,” NASA geologist Greg Vaughan told Discover. Consequently, high-tech instruments were dispatched to the new island. There, they documented the water temperature and the movement of the pumice stones.
While NASA was studying images taken from space, on the other side of the Atlantic Scott Bryan was planning a more hands-on approach. In fact, the volcanologist from London’s Kingston University had his heart set on a physical expedition. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be until February 2007 that he would finally make it to the island.
Sadly, however, by the time he arrived there wasn’t much left to explore. Indeed, rough seas had all but washed away the pumice and ash, and little more than a seamount remained. Yet although Fransson and Håkan’s discovery was short-lived, it still managed to make a contribution to science before it sank beneath the waves.
Yes, in October 2006 the Maiken finally arrived in Brisbane, Australia, after half a year at sea. Six months later, one of the pumice rafts from the island washed up in Queensland, more than 1,000 miles from the spot where Fransson and Håkan had first seen it. And with it came an astonishing array of marine life, which scientists are continuing to study. So although the pair didn’t receive the honor of naming a new territory, their voyage will go down in history in a different way.