Monday, 26 November 2007

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.

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