Monday, 26 November 2007

Decision time

This is the face of fear!

6 November 2007
We had to continue on a longer course than we’d have liked as we had to face into the waves. A course of less than 270 degrees sent the waves crashing onto the beam risking spinning the boat around and losing control. In daylight, at least you can see what is coming and counter it; in the darkness it was impossible.

Every time I went below to check our course, the noise was unbelievable. It sounded like the boat was being hurled against a wall. As she rose above the bigger waves, I’d hold my breath and anything else I could then thwack/bang/crash as it fell down into the trough. There were a few moments below, both of us later recalled, when we forgot where we were for a few moments, feeling strangely safe in the comparative warmth and light of the cabin. Then we’d remove the washboard and open the companionway to go up top and it would be like returning to an extremely bad dream.

We couldn’t look at each other except at one point Tim motioned me towards him and he managed to give me a quick kiss. It was not a good kiss. It reflected our worst fears.

Every minute of those few hours was an eternity. We had to get far enough west so we could make a sharp turn south once clear of Ithaka so the waves would be behind us. But we were terrified that this would be even worse. Tales of surfing down waves and being spun beam on were in our minds – would we be able to control the boat? Due to our inexperience, we had no idea of how bad it really was or what would happen. And would we make the turn through the waves at all?

The fear that we would not was so great Tim suggested continuing north to Vasiliki (2 hours away) – it may be lots further but at least we knew what we were in for – it would be like this. I said no way. For starters, it could be worse plus we’d been on the go for 9 hours by then and had to get somewhere soon. We were within spitting distance of Fiskardo. So we decided to make the turn and take our chances.

We waited for a relative smooth patch in which to make the turn. We had to turn soon otherwise we’d overshoot the channel between Ithaka and Cephalonia. There was no smooth patch so we agreed to just do it. With every orifice held shut, Tim turned the boat through the waves onto the new course.

The world fell silent. All we could hear was rushing water; breaking, spilling crests, worryingly high behind us but it was so quiet. The howling had stopped, the crashing of the boat had stopped, we were surfing but it was under control. The waves were still bouncing our stern alarmingly, trying to turn us side on to them, but it was predictable and manageable. The relief was incredible. We were going to make it.

The lighthouse on the headland of Fiskardo was tantalisingly close but it seemed to take forever to get there. We had to continue past the lighthouse for some way so we could turn back into the waves for the approach into the harbour, though the sea state had definitely calmed down a bit. Reassuring both of us with promises of only minutes remaining, we eventually made the sharp turn back into the weather and towards the harbour.

We abandoned the chart plotter and navigated by eye which was tricky as it was a dark, moonless night. Once clear of all hazards, real and imaginary, the pontoon lay ahead of us, lit by street lights. We moored up in a trance-like state. I looked through the aft cabin hatch from the deck above to see the dogs standing with their faces pressed to the door, lifejackets on, so still and quiet. I held back the tears.

We stood on the deck and held each other. It was over. Tim took my photo for the record. Half a bottle of Laphroig and a cup-a-soup later, we fell into a fitful sleep.

Things we now know from talking to other people: Frikes is a terrible harbour at the best of times and should only be used in the summer; the pontoon should be condemned and is dangerous; Vathi on Ithaka would have been a better option than returning to Cephalonia; it was very windy that night in Vasiliki; what we experienced was probably no more than a F6 but the sea state was worse than you would expect; we should have put a bit of sail out.

Learning from our experience:
We should have considered our options more fully before we left Frikes; we should have sought advice from locals in Frikes; we should have had our lifejackets ready for action and individual lanyards (the dogs had better safety gear than us); Chart plotters are life savers but we should have marked our position periodically on the paper chart; take account of local conditions re. sea state; have faith in your boat – we’d had the steering and rigging serviced expertly by IBA only a week before – thanks gents! And thanks Monty B for bringing us home.

One of our good friends, the local chandler Danny summed it up by saying “That’s about as bad as it will get”. Not because of the conditions – we will go through far worse – but because it was the first time either of us had faced anything like that. It was truly very frightening and we felt like we’d been run over for a few days.

Next episode – Force 10 from Cephalonia, can it get any worse?

The most terrifying experience of our lives (so far)

Tuesday 6 November, 1800
A grim-faced Tim sat at the wheel as we took off into the gloom, the wind now blowing around a F4 on the nose as we powered into the waves (which had not been there an hour earlier). I nipped below to get seasickness tablets for us both (just in case) and some safety gear. Unfortunately we were in the middle of servicing the lifejackets so they were unpacked (next to useless) and the only lanyard I could find was the one we used to tie up the dogs. Hey ho – better - than nothing and we clipped ourselves on with it.

Ten minutes later the wind seemed to be increasing, as was the sea state. This was not what we were expecting. Only an hour before, in this exact position, the wind had been light and the sea calm. It was now almost completely dark and I remembered that it was black moon; we would have no light. It was at this moment, with spray starting to come over the spray hood and the wind now howling that I had a feeling that this was a bad idea. And I knew in my bones that it was going to get worse. And said so. We could turn around and try to moor in Kioni, the next harbour south from Frikes. But what if we couldn’t moor there safely? What if the wind was just as bad there? I could have checked the pilot book for other options but couldn’t face going below unless I had to. The movement of the boat was quite severe, making going below very disorientating (and puke inducing). I was already up and down the steps to check the chart plotter every 5 minutes which was bad enough.

It was around this time that we accepted that the lifejackets were useless. I couldn’t repack them in these conditions and couldn’t read the crap pen marking our names on them to tell them apart.

Moment by moment, the conditions were getting worse. The waves seemed to be passing very close to the cockpit as we went into them but it was so dark that you could only see foam rather than the waves themselves. Probably a good thing. Tim wondered where ‘foam’ appeared on the Beaufort Scale.

I took my turn on the helm as we reached the northern tip of Ithaka and entered the sea proper. As I had feared, it got worse. It had come to the point when you think that this is the limit – it won’t get any worse. But then it does. Most of the waves were now crashing over the deck and many onto and over the spray hood. I pressed the outside of my knees against the walls of the cockpit to hold myself in place, gripped the wheel with all my strength and kept my eye fixed on the compass, lit up by the red bulb of my headtorch. The boat rose up each wave then crashed as it fell down the other side. Every so often, I tried to half stand to see over the spray hood to make sure there was nothing in front of us but each time I got a faceful of water, taking my breath away and I laughed out loud (verging on hysteria rather than joy). When Tim went below, the fear started to creep up on me. I realised I was panting and fought the urge to panic. The only thing I can equate it to is being locked onto the worst fairground ride you can imagine by a total psycho, and knowing that the safety belt hasn’t locked, you hold on for dear life but have no idea when or how it’s going to end. The very real fear that the boat would break up into pieces was never far away. If something went wrong with the rudder, the steering or the engine, we were fucked. And potentially dead. We would not know how to deal with it and that was a very scary thought. We were also on our own. No lifeboats here. Our lack of experience was suddenly no longer amusing.

After a ship over 200m (thank you Yachtmaster Theory) crossed our path with less room that I would have liked in a calm sea in daylight, Tim took over the helm once more. Sharing my fears about the boat falling apart, he glanced up at the mast to check it wasn’t breaking in two! It was still there but the night sky lurching in all directions behind it wasn’t something to dwell on. “It’s fine.”

When you are helming, although frightening and exhausting, at least you feel slightly in control. You have to stay focused on the job and you can’t see much. After passing over the helm to Tim – a complicated manoeuvre involving lap sitting on and dual holding of the wheel, clipping, unclipping then tumbling into the cockpit – I made the mistake of looking at the size of the waves – then really wished I hadn’t. They were the height of our spray hood – which is about 4-5 metres above the waterline. This was bad. And on it went.

An unintentional Odyssey of our own

Tuesday 6 November, 1200
With a forecast for a NW 3-4, it looked like we’d get a good sail to Frikes on Ithaka. According to the pilot book Frikes provided good shelter though the pilot book warned of NW down-draughts off the mountains.

There was quite a swell to the north of the islands and we were rolling a bit under motor as we sorted out the sails. Once the sails were up it was much smoother and the wind was lighter than forecast and we headed to Ithaka under full sail. It was the best sail we’d had so far – the boat felt perfectly balanced and glided across the water. It felt really natural rather than forced – I’m finally getting the hang of it.

As we approached Frikes, we could see wind on the water ahead caused by the down-draughts. We started to take the sails in, got caught by a couple of hard gusts, but nothing to worry about. As the sun slipped behind the mountains, we motored into the tiny harbour and the place instantly took on a more sinister air as the gusts increased. There were two pontoons which, strangely, were not connected to the shore and the power boxes seemed to have taken a battering, some lying on their sides and dented. However, with no obvious space elsewhere in the harbour and a “Berth alongside here” sign pointing to the pontoons, we decided to go for it.

We hadn’t gone alongside before (not that common in the Med) and space was tight so Tim attempted to crab the boat into position – not an easy manoeuvre with very strong gusts coming off the mountains and onto our beam. I jumped onto the pontoon – a fair leap with our high topsides (worth remembering) – and judgement had to be spot on as if I missed, I’d be Squires pie, as by that point the gusts were considerable.

Anyway, all seemed good. We secured the lines, turned off the engine and congratulated ourselves with a job well done though there was a slight feeling of unease. There was something a bit weird about that pontoon. As I got back on board to grab a beer, a huge ferry wash came out of nowhere and appeared to pick up the pontoon and throw it towards our hull. We, in turn, rolled violently in the other direction, then both us and the pontoon swung back to collide. Utterly stunned, we jumped into action – me turning on engine and grabbing a fender; Tim shoving a tyre he’d just found between the boat and the pontoon – all the while the swell was being amplified by hitting the inside of the harbour walls and bouncing back. It was a very surreal moment, seeing Tim and the pontoon jerking violently one way whilst me and Monty B lurched hard away then towards it. This chaos lasted no more than 2 minutes then died down. We let go our lines, Tim jumped aboard and we took off out of the harbour. Both a tad shook up, with darkness falling, we tried to calm down before re-entering the harbour to attempt a plan B.

We re-entered the harbour and looked at all the possible (impossible) options while we kept the boat circling – very difficult with strong gusts and limited room to manoeuvre. Moving astern was going to be very difficult in that wind, the only space to med-moor was tight with another vessel alongside who we were worried could surge into us. Some locals were attempting to shout stuff to us in Greek from the north wall of the harbour. What little we could hear, we couldn’t understand, most regrettably as it turned out. We decided we had to go elsewhere. The preferred option was back to Fiscardo as we knew it was safe and well-lit so easy to moor at night. This was the only sensible idea we came up with and with clear skies and a chart plotter, once we were away from these gusts, we thought we would be okay.

Round the Island Race and beyond

Saturday 3 November 2007
Race day dawned clear and bright after a deluge of rain all night, moored up on the quay in Lefkas town. We narrowly avoided missing the race altogether when John decided to escape from the boat and run off into town after a cat. I heard a shout from a neighbouring boat whilst I was washing and legged after him, bra-less and barefoot (I did manage to put a fleece on). Luckily he was followed by a child from the boat next to us and only took 5 minutes to locate him, frantic and sweating (both of us).

Almost missed the 9am bridge out of Lefkas and only had one sail up by the time the starter pistol went – but hey ho – we were sort of near the start line and were off. As we crossed the start line, I realised we were the only boat towing a tender full of rainwater. Tim struggled to get it onto the scoop and propped up against the gantry. We now had a huge rubber and fibreglass brake instead. Coupled with us being the only competitor not to have launched a spinnaker, our finishing position seemed already assured.

The problem with clear, cloudless days is that they are often accompanied by a distinct lack of wind. Quite fundamental to a sailing race and after three hours of barely moving 2 miles, the dogs told us that there was no way we were going to make a harbour by nightfall unless we turned on our engine. So following the example of a Romanian entrant, we dropped out of the race and motored guiltily past the remaining competitors – so second from last, one better than we expected. Incidentally, the wind never made an appearance and it took the surviving boats 25 hours to complete the race so it was a good, if cowardly, call.

We motored in the unseasonably hot sun for 5 hours, with nothing to see other than the inhospitable cliffs of the west coast of Lefkas. As we neared the southern tip, we saw the mountains of Cephalonia (of ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ fame) rising from the sea to the south. We had two options: either continue towards Nidri with the promise of a drunken night ahead or be a bit more daring and go to Cephalonia. Full of the spirit of adventure, we checked the charts and decided to continue south to Fiscardo, a small harbour on the east coast of Cephalonia.

We arrived in Fiscardo as the sun was setting and moored up on an empty pontoon, the only cruising yacht in the harbour. It was extremely quiet with almost everything shut up for the winter. But we liked it.

We spent several days working on the boat in the exceptionally pretty little harbour, basking in the autumn sunshine and enjoying the peace. It was brilliant to be somewhere new – we both needed a change of scenery and it felt like being on holiday, despite being up to the elbows in Sikaflex sealant and masking tape as usual. On the other side of the harbour lay a pine covered headland, criss-crossed with paths and perfect for dog walking. My romantic notions of walking the dogs along a rocky foreshore, listening to the waves breaking, were finally realised. Above the rocks sat two lighthouses. One a Venetian ruin complete with house and walled garden – if only we had some money. The other was still in use. The ruins of a Norman church stood lonely and windswept on top of the headland providing 360 degree views of the sea, surrounding islands and mountains. All of this made up for the lack of a social life – and we talked about seeing out the winter there.

However, we decided we should make the most of the sunny, breezy weather and get some sailing in so after a few days we hauled anchor.

Diary entries October 2007 - gale warnings

Diary entries 20/21/22/23 October 2007

Saturday 20 October
I’ve been looking forward to going out for over a week, such a rare event as it is nowadays. It is the last weekend of pontoon life – the last of the summer liveaboards are going home and England are in the rugby World Cup final at 10pm (yes, I have no interest in rugby but it’s a guaranteed pissup). However, plans appear to be scuppered. Instead of sitting in the Tree Bar, making new friends and getting drunk, I’m on the boat listening to the rain hammering down on the roof (as it has been all day – got drenched 3 times). Listening to my music through crappy battery operated speakers and tickling a smelly dog’s tum is no consolation. The wine isn’t bad though – 3 euros a bottle and perfectly palatable. Made by a company called Dionysos, which is Greek for Dennis. Dionysos was the god of booze (my kinda man) whose claim to fame was trying of get everyone to chill out a bit by encouraging them to get pissed. He was killed by the fun police (the Titans) who in turn were destroyed by Zeus and somehow provided the origins of human existence and apparently a bit of Dennis is in all of us (some more than others). I’m not making it up, honest.

My marooned plight is worsened by Tim’s failure to recognise the horror of the situation as he sits, happy as a pig in shit, amongst a pile of used bulbs and our new multimeter. My only interaction with this man-play is to get him to test my resistance – 2 ohms apparently – rather disappointingly the same as him and Louis but thankfully more than the salt cellar. My! The winter nights are going to fly by.

More excitingly, we do have gale warnings forecast for tomorrow or Monday, up to F9, which would be terrifying if it happened at sea. Even here, it sounds potentially frightening – so I am working on the assumption that it won’t happen. Anyway, we couldn’t be better anchored if we tried. Re-anchored this morning in Tranquil Bay and dug our anchor deep into the mud. The holding is excellent here. We are semi-sheltered from southerlies and v well sheltered from NE to SE.

Hooray! There appears to be some respite in the rain – quick dog hair removal from clothes and we’re off to the pub.

Sunday 21 October
Spent all day waiting for the wind to come. Didn’t go out last night as it started peeing it down again. Shipping forecast this morning said S/SE 7-8 at 1600, F8-9 from 2000.

1600 came and went without event. By that time we were as prepared as we could be. We reanchored about 10 yards from our previous position – a vital 10 yards putting some land between us and the forecast gale. We lashed down all deck things that could move and set up a second anchor on the bow should our anchor fail.

Just before nightfall, the clouds parted to flood the sky, mountains and tops of the towering clouds with a luminous orange glow. It was one of those aliens landing/alternative dimension moments and we decided to jump into Billy and take the dogs for a ten minute toilet stroll (cat-chase/scavenge/no toilet/lots of telling off pointless expedition). Got safely back on the boat and cooked a big curry, slightly disappointed that the forecast seemed an exaggeration. As the last mouthfuls of curry went down, the boat was caught by a huge gust which came out of nowhere, plates were cast aside and we jumped up on deck. It was just a gust – that was all – but the wind was definitely rising. I forced the remainder of my food down to prove all was okay but I was surprised to find I felt a bit sick.

2300:After strong gusts over the last few hours, its now a constant F7 I reckon. I’m now used to the continuous screaming of the wind tearing through the boatyard on the other side of the bay, full of hibernating summer cruisers. There are two levels of sound; one being of the usual strong wind blowing type – whistling, building into a crescendo roar as it rushes up the bay. The other being a much higher pitched whistle which turns into a melee of falsetto screams when the gusts hit masts.

It’s interesting exploring your comfort levels in these situations. The boat is now rocking as the water has chopped up a bit, with the occasional lurch. Then comes a strong gust, around 35-40 knots. You can hear them build up down the valley, then you wait as the noise increases, the anchor chain tightens then POW! It hits, pushing us hard, you hold your breath – then it dies back, leaving us swinging through 180 degrees as the tension on the chain is released.

Every gust (around one per minute now) fills my tum with butterflies and breath is held while we are in its grip, waiting for something to go bang, clunk or crash. The storm is definitely on its way. I’m feeling pretty snoozy which is often my reaction to stress but I’m also tired – haven’t relaxed all day.

2330: Gale warning on shipping forecast but wind appears to have dropped.
0030: Went to bed as no further wind action.
0330: Awoke to wind whistling again and distant flashes of lightening. Listened to gusts getting stronger and more frequent for about 20 minutes then decided to get up to do some checks. Took fixes, did a hatch and leak check, had several discussions about whether we were moving and the “best” way of deducing it. Decided all was well and trooped off to bed.

I took a new book. It’s hard to sleep when your stomach lurches every time a gust pushes the boat and anchor chain to its limit – then releases it’s hold, sending the stern (our cabin) through an arc. It’s still unnerving to feel the boat travelling (speed over ground 0.3 knots according to the GPS) when you are lying down, with no points of reference. The balance mechanism in your brain tells you that you are moving but it is hard to determine in what direction. I need to know these things. Even on dry land, I usually know exactly where north is without thinking about it, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. In a spinning cabin, it’s almost impossible and I find it very disorientating.

About 20 minutes after going to bed, I heard what sounded like metal dragging; a deep, distant reverberating for about 5 seconds. To me it sounded like an anchor doing something it shouldn’t. A few gusts later I heard it again. I decided we should go on anchor watch – Tim sleepily agreed and I told him I’d wake him up in an hour.

One look outside allayed my fears. Of course we were in the same position. Checked GPS and all was okay. Then the wind dropped – completely – and almost instantly, the sky was full of stars. I made myself a Marmite drink, read and enjoyed the silence for half an hour before returning to bed.

Monday 22 October
0900: Rain, thunder, more wind. Shipping forecast SW F8-9. Not good news as a bit close to shore for comfort if the wind turns westerly. Shoreline shallows and mud so not a bad landing but don’t fancy the embarrassment of being grounded!

1850: Spent all day on boat with 2 brief respites for dog walks. I now haven’t spoken to anyone other than Tim since Thursday. It’s taking its toll. Have started cutting off bits of my hair and cracked open a beer at 3pm. Cabin fever setting in.

The storms are completely different in the daytime. So much less frightening when you can see what is going on. Stormy all day but now completely calm.

1900: forecast S/SW 7-8. No huge blows overnight, just one storm with gusts. Tim’s turn to do a watch.

Tuesday 23 October
All quiet. Mike from IBA popped by to discuss steering cables. I talked his ears off for the best part of 2 hours, having not spoken to anyone for coming on a week.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Two months on Monty B

This is what we’ve been doing

The weather has dictated the past month to a large degree. Autumn arrived with the onset of spring, or so it seemed. Clusters of miniature cyclamen, Greek variations on crocus and snowdrops and lush green grass have appeared. With each rain, the mountains have turned from white to green and the crevasses have begun to run with water. Citrus fruit trees are heavy with oranges and lemons ready to be harvested. The olives now look big enough to eat.

The pseudo-spring then gave way to violent storms. Evening meals have been lit up by breath-taking lightening displays over the mountains towards Lefkas. Finger-like forks running horizontally across the sky producing an almost constant distant rumbling. When the storms swing our way, there is little warning. The wind signals its arrival with a growing roar, increasing in strength and volume within a minute while we chuck everything below and batten down the hatches. Then the storm hits. Winds spinning us around on the anchor, continuous lightening flashes illuminating the whole bay, thunder crashing and echoing against the mountains. The rain comes pelting down, drenching us from our positions under the sprayhood, completely overexcited and immersed in one of the finest spectacles on earth (and boat). I have video but it's a .mov file and cannot find anything to edit it with - help anyone?

Then we had the gale. For three days we waited and prepared for it. I will stick some of my diary on here at some point for anyone who can be bothered to read that much of my blether. It will be entitled The Gale. You can witness what happens to a fragile mind when you are stuck on a boat for days on end.

We’ve achieved a fair bit on Monty B this month. Our sailing is coming along. Met a lovely couple called Lesley and Barry who own a wee 20 footer called Antares which had a buggered engine. They were dog people so came over to see the lads – and we spent a v pleasant week or so hanging out with them – including going for a fantastic confidence building sail. We’ve been building on it ever since and have decided to throw caution to the wind (poor turn of phrase for this type of activity) and enter the Round the Island Race which takes place on Saturday (3 Nov). The game plan is to drop out half way through so we can walk the dogs. Nothing cowardly about that.

(At this point in proceedings, I had to stop writing as a NE wind appeared from nowhere – we were facing SW – and within a minute we had travelled twice the length of our well laid out anchor chain (40m of chain thus 80 metres) and were hurtling towards a pontoon. Stopped about 6 metres from it but scared the living daylights out of us and spent the next 2 hours waiting for the weather to make its mind up and ended up having to re-anchor at midnight. Lesson learnt? Always make allowances for a complete change in wind direction despite the forecast and make sure you are not going to hit anything). As Tim just pointed out, in all the years he’s lived in a house, he’s never woken up in the night to find it hurtling through the air towards another one.

Monty B is a great deal more sea-worthy than she was a month ago. We have had the standing rigging serviced and tightened up, new steering cable and replaced 40 metres of crap chain with shiny new anchor chain (now total 80m of good chain). That’s a good test of how much you trust each other – my knot has attached the chain to the shackle which attaches the anchor to the boat. That’s taking responsibility – how the fk did I ever work in an office?

Tim has spent much of the month with his head in the diesel engine armed with the instruction manuals. He has completely serviced it and the engine is now ace. It’s running like a dream and we’re confident it could get us out of trouble. There was mention of how women should come with a similar manual though Tim seems to think he could write one about me – sections on How to diagnose a problem, Troubleshooting Tips, Lessons Learnt – very droll (and at the moment would be in its infancy).

So, the Race is on – tomorrow. It will be a sizeable challenge and it might all go wrong - but we've decided we've got to be more brave. The dogs disagree. Photos will follow.

And finally, we’ve found a shop where you fill up plastic bottles with wine from a barrel which costs 3 euros for 1.5 litres. If only we could've got Banrock Station like that in England. That’s £1.00 for a bottle of perfectly drinkable red wine. With prices like these, you could find yourself becoming an alcoholic…………..