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?