Tuesday, 25 December 2007

UPDATED!!! The Journey to Montenegro

We had a mere two weeks to prepare the boat and ourselves for the voyage to Montenegro. This was quite a task and any fun was overshadowed by feeling anxious about the whole event. I was worried (see Preparation for the voyage to Montenegro); my attempts to persuade myself that it would be an amazing experience were not working. It just felt all wrong.

I was sad to leave Greece. We were just starting to build up proper relationships with people and I’d been looking forward to roughing out the winter in Tranquil Bay. Lefkas was comfortable and somewhere to call a home (aahh, will I ever learn? Nottingham for 17 years etc etc). Anyhow, I had to face facts: we had no income and couldn’t guarantee that work would come up in the new year. This offer couldn’t be bettered - it was a fantastic opportunity to get valuable work experience and some money. Plus winter was setting in; it was getting colder, more frequent crap weather and nights of broken sleep, were all taking their toll. There was also the odd hankering for heat and hot water going on.

Monday 10 December
So on Monday 10 December we left Nidri and motored up to Lefkas for a night in the marina (hook up = hot water, heating and a soulless floating suburbia). Unfortunately we got there too late to refuel so our plans to meet Ruairi* and leave at 7am the next day were already scuppered. So we arranged to get fuel at 8.30am, moved the Ruairi pick-up to the fuel pumps then get the 9am bridge. (Lefkas is connected to the mainland by a swing-bridge that only opens on the hour).

[*Ruairi: Outspoken, convivial Irishman who very kindly offered his services as crew/skipper for the journey when we got drunk in his yacht club a week ago in Vliho, Lefkas. We will never agree on politics but he is a superb sailor, an excellent coach and a strong man. We couldn’t have done it without him]

Tuesday 11 December
We were awoken at 3am by an approaching thunderstorm which kept going for most of the night. Another night of broken sleep – we were absolutely knackered before the journey started. I wanted to delay but this was supposedly a “good weather window” – I can’t say it looked it when we got up at 6.30am to pissing down rain and the thunder rumbling around. Dear god; please let someone say we can’t go. Anything will do – maybe if I just dangled my leg off the boat near this pontoon…

8.30am: the hand of fate tried to help by catching the prop on another boat’s lazy lines as we left our berth which took a while to escape from. Moments later, as we approached the diesel pumps, the engine gave out completely. We were yet to leave the marina. I could see Ruairi’s look of utter disbelief from 200 yards away. Welcome to our world!

So, day one started 3 hours later than planned as we just missed the 9am bridge so had to sit on the quay for an hour. Yep! When we eventually left, the rain subsided and the skies temporarily cleared (though not in the direction we were headed). The storms of the previous night had raised a relentless swell which stayed with us for most of the day. This, coupled with a multitude of wind directions and strengths plus a few heavy rainstorms, made for an uncomfortable ride to Sivota Murta, a mainland harbour south of Corfu. We berthed as the light faded and Ruairi set about installing our autopilot. An autopilot is an incredible piece of equipment which steers the boat for you. It is, apparently and (now) understandably, essential to passage making so the fact that it was still sitting in a cupboard as we hadn’t bothered fitting it was a tad daft. After a few hours of frustrating man-work by Ruairi, the autopilot wouldn’t work so we settled down to food, beer then bed by 9ish.

Wednesday 12 December/Thursday 13 December
Tim and Ruairi were on first watch and we left at 4.30am – Ruairi obviously possesses some skills to get Tim up and off in 30 minutes. It was cold and drizzling. I stayed in bed with the dogs; it was ace. We decided on a 6 hours on, 3 hours off watch system for the rest of the voyage. This was it – we were at sea now. The route followed the Albanian coast, keeping around 12 miles offshore to prevent straying into minefields (no joke). We had approximately 40 hours of sailing ahead of us, with no ports of refuge. A few weather forecasts came in. They weren’t great and pretty much all Northerlies (the direction we were headed) but the worst was a N6, gusting 7. This didn’t appeal but we were in safe hands with Ruairi and there seemed little alternative but to continue. On the positive side, it was a good opportunity to go through a bit of rough weather in our boat with someone experienced on board. How bad could it get?

In preparation for what might come, I learnt to rig the small stay-sail to our second forestay. We all ate dinner around 5pm as darkness began to fall. There was an eerie sense of calm over the water as we tried to second guess which way the wind would blow that evening and what weather it would bring. Tim did some last engine checks before the pig push and just as well, he spotted a fuel filter problem. After half an hour’s tinkering, it was sorted. However, 30 minutes of hot engine and diesel for pudding is not what the doctor ordered, as he would later realise.

I went on watch at 8pm. We were motor-sailing to windward, it was pitch black (no moon) when I took over the helm. It was quite scary at first, feeling like driving on ice, blindfold, at great speed. I then had an amazing three hours of hurtling along; the only means of steering a course was by the stars and the boat felt like it was flying. I stood at the helm, alone, wind rushing against my face, trying to hold a course against the waves which bounced us this way and that. It was only possible to see the waves by the foaming crests, a flash of white in the darkness, as waves rushed by the boat. We then noticed that the breaking water was full of phosphorescence – luminous green sea-sparks, like an electrically charged glitter, exploding into the foam as the waves broke. It was breathtaking. The background worries were still nagging away but I managed to put them to one side, despite the fact we were clearly heading into cloud, the wind was getting stronger and the waves were getting bigger.

My helm watch ended as the stars completely disappeared and conditions were beginning to feel a little hairy. Just as I was about to go below, the boat dipped low then a freak wave came crashing over the boat, blasting through the sprayhood, sending gallons of water below decks and soaking all of us. Umm, maybe I wouldn’t go down below after all.

Recalling the subsequent events is like the aftermath of an extremely drunken evening. It is hard to work out the chronology and length of each event - but I shall try. This is also written entirely from my perspective.

There was a point which went from sitting alongside Ruairi with the wind and waves in my face, feeling quite uneasy to cowering under the sprayhood, feeling scared. The wind was starting to howl and the waves changed from cresting to breaking. In the meantime, Tim was down below, attempting to calm down two terrified dogs while the boat pitched and lurched as it was hit by rolling waves. At some point I volunteered to help Tim – grudgingly, but I sensed desperation and he was obviously getting seasick – I sent him up top and dragged both dogs onto the saloon berth, turned off the light and lay horizontal with them both pinned down beside me. The only way of not getting sick was lying that way, eyes closed and something takes over; almost a semi-conscious state. But this was difficult to maintain as I had to hold Louis with all my strength as he was completely freaking out and struggling to escape. It brings tears to my eyes every time the image comes back to haunt me: panting as though every breath was his last, lips drawn back, uncontrollable shaking and desperate scrabbling about. We can never allow this to happen again.

John, very sensibly, buried himself into me and the berth, probably wishing that Louis would shut up barking so he could get some sleep. He had the right idea. Every few minutes, a huge wave would hit us broadside, tilting (what a delicate word for such a violent act) the boat at a ridiculous angle and I had to hold on tight to prevent us being thrown across the floor. The floor was several inches deep in sea water which poured from one end of the boat to the other as we rolled. I knew I should bail it out but couldn’t move – it would make me sick.

Tim, at this point, was head over the leeside, sick as a dog. Or worse than a dog, as it happens.

Every time Ruairi came down the steps to do something useful – attempt to bail out the water or check the radar – Louis would break free, barking frantically and being hurled across the boat, desperately hoping it was Tim or a saviour of some kind, who knows? I don’t know how long I lay there (several hours) but the position was getting impossible to maintain as the sea-state grew worse. The sounds inside were terrible: slamming and cracking of the hull as the boat heaved, water sloshing across the floor, roaring of the sea and waves crashing over the deck above my head.

Ruairi asked me where the bilge switch was – my response was too mixed up and woolly so I tried to show him. Bad move. After only a few seconds of standing/being thrown across the boat, I lost it. With no time for even the bile to rise, I was violently sick all over the galley-sink, pots and draining board. I had to get outside. I managed to get the dogs and myself into the cockpit to find Tim, holding on for dear life, puking his guts up. I fell into the space next to him and did the same.

For probably the next hour or so, Ruairi continued to helm whilst dodging waves and getting a drenching every few minutes. Tim held Louis, I held John and each of us shivered, attempting to hold onto what was left of our stomachs. What little experience I had of wind and waves told me that this was no force 7. This was a storm and it was getting worse.

Tim took over the helm, despite his sickness, as Ruairi radioed a ship whose path we were likely to cross. I don’t know how Tim did it as it was at that point I realised the level of skill that was required to keep the boat afloat. I was utterly terrified – this is in no way a criticism of Tim’s helmsmanship – he did amazingly well – I had just got to the point that I feared for my life and wanted the pro in charge.

I cannot tell you how it feels to be out at sea in those conditions. It was difficult to see the huge, breaking waves in the darkness but when a particularly large wave was about to hit, we’d be sucked into it for a few seconds before it would crash over the entire boat, then race away behind us with a trail of foam flying through the air. You are filled with a desperate hope that it will calm down then an even bigger wave hits you. Stress isn’t the word. We were looking at force 9 winds by this point and unexpectedly large seas. The same thing prayed on my mind as it did during our adventures in Cephalonia – how bad was this going to get? It was unexpected and freakish – it could become more freakish.

Around 4am, based on the deteriorating conditions and the sorry state of the crew, the decision was taken to go one step down from survival and hove-to (almost). Ruairi set the boat to sail just off the wind, locked off the steering and suggested we all went below. Neither of us wanted to move and continued to sit in our own, freezing, scared little worlds watching the waves race away behind us, wide-eyed and feeling slightly mad. Then a ridiculously large wave hit us, sending every last book spewing from the highest bookshelf and for a few seconds it looked like the boat was going over. I’d had enough of this. If the boat was going over, I wanted to be in it, not held underneath it. Puke or no puke, I was off.

On my way down, for the sake of everyone else on the boat, I made a feeble attempt to clear up the galley puke. I lasted around 3 seconds before I was sick again. I tried to get to the heads (toilet) – an almost impossible task when you are being hurled from one side of the boat to another and you can’t tell whether you are standing on your feet or your head. I made it into my cabin and my beautiful Indian bedspread became a huge sick bag as I was thrown into a corner - and there I stayed. Shaking, freezing, soaked and scared, I fell in and out of an almost unconscious sleep-state, plagued by crazy thoughts and waking nightmares. I felt hugely guilty to have abandoned any form of seaman-like behaviour and was helping no-one but I just couldn’t take any more. I desperately wanted the others to make themselves safe and was so worried that something was going to happen to them up there. Every time waves swept across the decks or crashed into the hull I shuddered, “I knew this was going to happen; what are we doing here? Why did I let this happen?”

I will point out at this point that Tim had packed the seasickness tablets at the bottom of the grab bag (our survival pack) and both of us were so incapacitated that neither could manage to get them out. That is how debilitating seasickness is.

I must have stayed in the same position for 3-4 hours when I finally forced myself to rejoin the crew. It was a dull daylight, someone appeared to be steering again but the conditions were still terrible. I made it the two yards to the toilet then just puked uncontrollably. I wasn’t going anywhere. I fell back into the cabin. About 30 minutes later, Ruairi appeared in the cabin, attempting to fix the steering cables. We had lost steerage. Brilliant. This was just the news my nerves needed but taking advantage of the drop in speed, I staggered up to the cockpit. My first visit was straight to the leeward side of the cockpit and unbelievably, more puking. Even more unbelievably, Tim was still sitting there, looking grey/green and must have been frozen to the core.

Somewhere between 8am and midday, the sky cleared and the sea looked so beautiful, sparkling and foaming in the sunshine. But I was too sick, too exhausted, too wrung-out, spun-out and pissed off to enjoy it. Tim shook himself out of his malaise and did some heavy weather helming under Ruairi’s tutorship which looked like an amazing buzz. I watched and wished I could move – but the sea had taken everything from me.

We had lost some ground overnight so Ruairi did most of the helming that day (I have no idea where he got the strength from as he hadn’t rested for a moment). The day slipped by; all I saw were waves and the inside of my heavy eyelids. The mountains of Montenegro, snow-capped and steep, grew ever closer and we finally entered the Boka Kotorska around 4pm.

As we entered the bay, the sea flattened out and we came back to life, as though we’d been given an antidote to some poison we had been fed the night before.

[Now, Ruairi thinks seasickness is psychological. I disagreed with him on day one of the trip. Now, with all this behind me, I think he may have a case – to a point. More discussion of this in the future as I do not wish to digress].

After stopping at Customs in Zelenika, we moored up in the harbour of Herceg Novi, looking every bit like we’d been at sea for a week. Our clothes and faces were soaked and encrusted with salt. Ruairi looked like he’d walked to the South Pole. The dogs got a walk on land and were suddenly back to normal, lucky things. Saying we breathed a collective sigh of relief is true but a gross understatement. We’d made it.

I was never going to sea again.

[Tim’s bit: Regrettably I haven’t written anything about the last 5 months, but I can’t let this story go, not with my memory!

The voyage was one of contrasts and extremes. The conditions and events are already described here better than I can do, but the emotions are only from Katie’s perspective. The highs and lows on a trip like this are, more accurately, periods of exhilaration and dread. The ‘dread’ I felt was a feeling of hopelessness – that I was in a more dangerous and difficult situation than ever before, incapacitated to a high degree by seasickness, that left me fighting reclusion and exhaustion unnecessarily. Seasickness is dangerous. Not only does it make you weak, it causes mental confusion and acceptance to your own fate. Precisely the opposite of what you need to get through such events. Never again can we allow both of us to get ill.

Fortunately, I discovered one cure for it, which happens also to be the other half of my bit. The ‘exhilaration’ of taking the helm for parts of that night is forever engrained. Dragging myself up to the wheel periodically to give Ruairi a break, (so he could bail us out some other way, literally or otherwise, which wasn’t the intention), was a revelation. Never before have I been so acutely tested mentally and physically. Taking the helm in those seas felt like being teleported into a rally car during your first driving lesson. From sitting in a corner of the cockpit – cold, soaking, frightened, sick, a resigned and reluctant spectator – I was suddenly in control of ten tonnes of vessel, and our lives. Sitting here after the event, I’m wondering whether that is an exaggeration. Whatever, at the time it was pretty sobering. When you stand up, brace yourself into position and steer up the first wave, gauging its power and effect on the only thing keeping you alive, you suddenly forget about seasickness and tiredness and thirst. And when you see the man, to whom only moments ago you’d happily abdicated all responsibility, disappearing and reappearing below a plunging deck, you quickly realise that this is not a YouTube video – this is me and this is now and this needs to be dealt with.

So that’s how it feels. What does it look like? At all times I can remember thinking ‘this looks worse than it is.” Funnily enough, it does look like a YouTube video, except it’s 3D, panoramic and the screen keeps hitting you in the face until your eyes sting. In these conditions, there are breaking waves everywhere you look. You have to keep one eye on your course ahead and the other on what’s heading for your course. So while you’re weaving between the worst of the sea that’s crashing over your bows and deck, the greater danger is actually the one that slams into your side and knocks you for six. And it never ends. As far as you can see in any direction it’s the same. Looking behind, you can watch your own surf breaking over the wave you’ve just gone through or over. Around you, the phosphorescent blobs swimming down your deck are momentarily beautiful, until you join up the dots and realise that that’s the sea on the wrong side of your boat! On many occasions at the time and since I have wondered how on Earth solo sailors like Ellen MacArthur can keep it up for days on end. It’s more than just “because they’d die if they didn’t”, because actually, most of us would just die.

So why ‘this looks worse than it is’? Because it looked like we were going to capsize, our skipper looked like he just had to fall overboard (he wasn’t tied on like we were), and the boat felt like it was going to tear apart. I knew that none of these things were going to happen. We now debate which event was worse – this or Ithaca (see ‘odyssey of our own’ entry). Katie reckons this one, as we were in worse weather, for much much longer, with no way out. I’m sticking with Ithaca – we had no idea of what was ‘normal’. There were moments when I thought we wouldn’t make it and if I could have ploughed Monty B into a beach, I would have. One of the great things about this trip though is that we’ve learnt so much. Whilst we’d still be in big trouble without a Ruairi if this one happened again any time soon, we’d handle the Ithaca scare with relative ease.

One day we’ll know what to do in every situation, and then sadly, we won’t have anything worth reading. Right now though, we’re all glad that we’ve got nothing too dramatic to write about.

Friday 14 December
The following day we motored down the Boka Kotorska to Kotor. Nothing happened – we just left, motored and arrived. Brilliant! The only point of note was the stunning, high mountain scenery and the harsh northerly wind which was blowing minus-temperatures. Snow was swirling around the craggy mountain tops – the contrast with the Greece we had left couldn’t have been greater.

That evening we got outrageously drunk – seriously drunk. It was great.

The following morning, still drunk, we got up early and Ruairi planned his escape. Instead of days spent on ferries/in ferry ports, we decided a taxi back to Greece was a great plan and just reward for his efforts. His tale of the journey home is on our blog. Read it.

Postscript: So much to think about after this experience. I asked Ruairi at several points during the trip “Am I meant to be enjoying this?”, to which the answer was always “No”. But even so, it has made me – and Tim for that matter – question whether we are cut out to be mariners.

A week ago when I wrote this, I said “I know I probably will but I don’t want to go through anything like that again”. I have already amended this to “I know I will go to sea again but I really don’t want to go through that again in a hurry”. Even a week’s distance from the event and the memories of what it truly felt like are waning. Which is why we will, no doubt, end up being scared witless again.

The other issue for me was anger with myself for “giving up”. I just couldn’t deal with the situation any longer and with hindsight, that had a lot to do with seasickness – it is so all encompassing. It saps you not only of strength and stomach but also messes with your mind. I do think that if I was needed – if there had just been the two of us – it would have been a different matter. But I guess the important lesson from this one is that we make sure that we prevent seasickness at all costs – which includes looking out for each other. And why did we both end up getting sick? Because of looking after the dogs. And that is ridiculous. The dogs will not survive if we are incapacitated. We have to find a better solution for them.

Seasickness aside, I think I would still have been very scared. It IS bloody scary and you’d be a fool if you thought it wasn’t. Yes, I have more faith in the boat now and yes, we survived. But you can never guarantee it will be okay so the fear cannot ever go away. Or that’s how I feel at the moment anyway.

Ultimately, I want to avoid getting ourselves into a storm situation again. The conditions were severe, far more severe than any of us had expected, but the forecast hadn’t been great and I wouldn’t take that risk again.

Ruairi was fantastic as skipper – in too many ways to mention here. We learnt so much from him and owe him a huge debt of gratitude for getting us through the journey. His stamina was incredible. We hope to be able to repay him one day.

Merry Christmas to all our mates

As I dragged myself around the (exceptionally poor) supermarket yesterday, attempting to find something to make veggie sausages from, I felt a horrible pang of homesickness.

For the record, I made the sausages out of onions, breadcrumbs and oats. They taste like some of that circa 1980 style rubbish they sell in Screaming Carrot. Spew.

Taste alright with a hangover though.


Monday, 24 December 2007

Preparation for the journey to Montenegro

27 November 2007
I have some trepidation about our journey to Montenegro. This isn’t helped by the amount of safety preparations we are making which focuses the mind on impending doom rather than a great sail in the company of someone who knows what they are doing.

The things I am worried about:

· Whether I am going to get on with Ruairi.
· Not being listened to (see above) or having control over the situation.
· Getting seasick thus unable to operate as crew
· Coping with a watch system – it’s a long enough journey to get very tired but not quite long enough to adapt to only getting 2 hours sleep at a time.
· Being able to sleep at all if there is a lot of movement.
· Sea state – what is it like being properly at sea? Well, I’ve seen what the Atlantic looks like 200 miles offshore when we were on Stavros S Niarchos (tall ship) and the thought of being in that, in a yacht, scares me. But this is the Adriatic – less swell; shorter, steeper waves.
· Storms – what if we bump into one? The weather can change rapidly at this time of year and even if it’s a nice high pressure system, set fine, there is always the chance of thunderstorms/squalls.
· Threat of a knock down – though if we suffer a knock-down and right ourselves quickly with no casualties (either boat, us or dogs) then it will at least be one of my fears experienced and survived so I will be better prepared should it happen again.
· Threat of a capsize – My main worry about capsize is being held under the boat whilst tied on and unable to get to the surface. My automatic reaction would be to attempt to unclip myself (I assume/hope – rather than lose the plot, try to breathe underwater and drown) and attempt to get to the surface. However, most capsizes will right themselves quickly and you would rather hope that you make it back with the boat (god knows how many injuries you sustain in the process but it’s better than being dragged away by the sea). If you unclip, you are a man overboard and will be taken away by the sea with little hope of recovery. A dilemma. I am not convinced our boat is watertight enough to come out of a capsize (for any length of time) without taking on a lot of water. But I can’t worry about stuff like that.
· How the dogs will cope. They are not going to see land for a few days so no walks and no land toilet for Louis (John will go on the swimming deck). They are still quite jumpy from our Frikes/Fiskardo experiences; they’re not happy when the wind howls and particularly hate thunderstorms. Unexpected movement of the boat or banging sends Louis into a barking frenzy. There will be some turbulent weather on this trip, without a doubt. I am very concerned about how they will cope.

Oh, I nearly forgot lightening strikes. I don’t understand how or whether we are sufficiently earthed. I’ve narrowly escaped being struck by lightening twice. Enough said.

I thought I’d feel better once I’d written these down but it’s put the fear of god in me instead. I do feel unusually nervous about this. It isn’t helped by Tim sitting by my side going through the dozens of out of date flares that we have on board. An insomniac wired on caffeine with deadly incendiaries in hand, saying things like “Did you see where I put the one without a top on?” does not make for a relaxing morning.

The journey will undoubtedly be an adventure. You cannot leave port without something unexpected happening and this is one of the truly exciting things about this lifestyle. I would just like to limit the adventure to a level below terrifying. In many ways, it will be fantastic. At last we will get to sail properly. Not just pottering about on the easiest point of sail or flapping around in light winds – we should get some good downwind sailing. I am looking forward to sailing with someone who knows what they are doing. That is what tips the balance for me when it comes to the adrenalin buzz v white-knuckled fear. We will learn a lot; pushing the boundaries far more than we ever would alone.

One positive aspect of our preparation is that it has focused the mind on the dull things that need to be sorted out and keep getting overlooked. Here are some of things that have kept us busy over the last few weeks:

· Got the liferaft serviced. A very interesting exercise as Laurie, who serviced it, took us along to his workshop to see our raft in action. It had been wrongly packed on its previous service and water had seeped in. We got to see it inflated, looked at how to get into it (and added an additional ladder for hauling ourselves in) and sat in it. We learnt that it was a great quality liferaft - £2K worth – so well worth servicing. We went through all the kit so we now know exactly what is in the raft and what we need in our grab bag. Yet to find out how much all this has cost (it will be expensive) but it is money very well spent. Postscript: It cost 428 euros to service! 428 euros! Jesus.
· Put together a grab bag of emergency supplies. You can imagine how much Tim enjoyed this.
· Sewing up the sprayhood as it is on it’s last legs. An arduous task using a huge needle, a hand thimble and strong thread. My mother can attest to my stitching leaving something to be desired so it isn’t pretty. It is a knackered, green and ugly affair which we are getting replaced soon so attention to detail is not required.
· Had custom made lanyards made to my spec – one short line (for clipping onto a strong point while you are working on deck), one longer line to clip onto jack stays when moving around on deck. Thanks to Mark from Neilson for very kindly making them for me.
· Installed new jack stays (secure, strong webbing that stretches the length of the deck which you clip onto when moving around at night or in rough weather). Thanks again to Mark.
· Tightening the guardrails and putting up safety netting to prevent you being washed overboard if you get hit by a wave or slip on deck.
· Tested our VHF radio and re-wired the Navtex so we can reliably get weather forecasts en route.
· Serviced the storm jib and stay sail so we how have an alternative to the roller-furling gear if we have to sail to windward in strong winds.
· Re-installed automatic bilge pump switches (I spent an entire day crouched in the bilges being a wiring monkey but now they work so if the bilges fill up with water to a certain level, the pumps will come on automatically – quite important really!)
· Need to get motoring lights working. Tricolour is working (navigation lights for sailing) but the port, starboard and stern navigation lights (for use when motoring) are all knackered.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Leaving Lefkas

Here are several reasons why leaving Lefkas was difficult:

Friday, 7 December 2007

Photos from Cephalonia

Here are a few photos from the lovely Fiskardo and the day after the storm.


Sunday, 2 December 2007

Moving to Montenegro

27 November 2007

We’ve been offered a job. It’s exactly the opportunity that we’ve been looking for (or more accurately, hoping for). We met an English liveaboard couple in Lefkas, the morning of the Round the Island Race. In fact, it was their lovely lad, Orin, who followed and found John when he went cat chasing. We only spoke to Janet and Orin briefly – and didn’t talk to Sean at all – but they seemed very sound. You know when you meet someone who is alright. They were heading to Montenegro to start work there as Base Manager for a charter company.

They have emailed us to offer us a job there, working on 12 charter boats. General maintenance, body work, electrics, prep for the summer etc – and possibly work once the season begins if we want it. They know our level of experience and are happy to show us what to do. Free mooring, electric, water and enough money to live on and save a voyage fund for next year. We would be based in Kotor which is apparently the most well preserved medieval walled city in Europe (yes, another one), is a World Heritage site and surrounded by stunning scenery. It’s very cheap to live, the locals are exceptionally friendly and many speak good English. How can you say no to that??!

(It turns out there is only one job - so Tim's having it. I argued hard to get it so Tim could hang out all day doing nowt while I worked my ass off - but he was having none of it. So, I'm a kept woman! About bloody time.)

However, we have one problem. We have to get there. In December. There are a choice of routes. Either hammer it up from Corfu non-stop, keeping at least 12 miles off the Albanian coast (unless you want to arrested or meet a minefield), which would take three days or so continuous sailing. Not the best with our level of experience and the dogs.

Or we do it in hops from Corfu, over to Italy, up the Italian coast then cross back over from Brindisi to Bar. This last bit is what we are worried about. A 100 mile sea crossing in winter. Obviously we’d choose our weather window well and only go when it was set fine. But this is winter. If there’s enough wind to sail, there’s enough wind to chop the sea up. This may sound nowt to any seasoned sailor – but to us it seems like a huge undertaking. I’m scared of getting caught out in a storm. It is also going to be hard work with just two of us and I’m worried about the dogs.

I’m not happy about doing it alone (though I know that with enough reassurance from the “experts”, I may get there). I would, however, be much happier about doing it if we could take someone with us. I am sure, if we made a decent offer, someone may be up for it. It is worth it as an investment to get the experience that this job will give us and it feels like one of those “right place at the right time” opportunities. Plus I like the idea of being somewhere a little more off the beaten tourist track.

28 November 2007

Ruairie, who runs the Vlicho Yacht Club, has offered to sail with us to Montenegro. He is an excellent sailor and we will learn a lot from him. First leg will be to Corfu and should take around 17 hours. The second leg from Corfu to Kotor will take around 40 hours.

Sean, the guy who offered us the work, rang us today and said all is good at that end so we are off! Planning to leave on 11th December for Montenegro.

Most important job before we go – training Louis to pee somewhere on the boat. He still refuses.

More wind, more engine trouble and irrational fear

Advice - start with Force 10 from Cephalonia and finish with this one as they run chronologically.

12-16 November 2007

During the next four days we had another two gales. One force 7/8 and the other a force 9. These were recorded winds on our pontoon, not out at sea. I struggled to deal with it and started to feel like something really terrible was going to happen. The fear became very wearing. It was just a shock reaction and I’m fine now but the wind still gives me the fear. I speak for both of us I think. As I write, we are stuck in Lefkas town, moored against the wall (oh no!), with the wind howling through the rig, lightening flashing and all of us a little nervous. According to the pilot book, there are 4 gales on average in this area each winter. So far this winter there have been gale force winds almost weekly and we have been through four full on gales.

Not wishing to talk endlessly about the engine as it is very dull, but I have to give poor old Tim some credit. The lad spent 8 days sorting out the fuel tank so we could get the engine working again. The battering we took in the storm had stirred up all the crap out of the bottom, of which there was a lot, so it had to be pumped out and drained. Then almost immediately, the seawater impeller broke (which causes the engine to overheat) which was another load of work. His love affair with the engine is waning.

The final straw

Sunday 11 November 2007
Got up at 7am as neither of us could sleep. Absolutely shell shocked and exhausted. Spinning, numb head and nerves shot to pieces. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day – it looked like the day before had never happened until you looked at the bashed up backside of Monty B – boo hoo.

We wanted to get back to the safety of Tranquil Bay. So at midday, we set off towards Lefkas. Just was we cleared the harbour entrance, the engine lost revs and a few seconds later it cut out. We were worryingly close to the rocks that the lighthouse warns of so I pulled out the headsail and took us back into the harbour while Tim bled the fuel system. It worked and we decided to continue.

It took three chocolate and coffee fuelled hours to cross the choppy expanse of sea between Cephalonia and Lefkas. An hour from Tranquil Bay and with 1 ½ hours of daylight left, we started to relax. How silly of us! Moments later, the engine lost revs then cut out again. There was next to no wind but I hoisted the mizzen and headsail and got us sailing, albeit very slowly. Tim got the engine going again, we motored for a few minutes then it died. And again. And again.

With the light and our energies fading fast, we cut our losses and made the most of the tiny bit of remaining wind by attempting to sail back. After narrowly avoiding a collision with the Meganisi ferry (terrible timing), we neared Nidri. The sun went down and with it went what little wind we had.

Okay – now what? Next plan - Tim got into Billy and pushed us along, with Billy’s tiny and temperamental 2hp engine. Amazingly it worked and achingly slowly we shunted our way towards a safe anchorage. It was completely black again – it is very difficult to see when it first gets dark – and there is little shore lighting at this time of year. After much procrastinating and “discussion”, we dropped anchor but with no wind, we were pushed along beam on (sideways) rather than backwards so the anchor wouldn’t set. A quick flash around with the torch revealed that we were heading towards rocks, oh joy. So we gritted our teeth, hauled anchor and Tim got back into Billy to push us back into position.

In the process of a fair bit of swearing (at each other by this point – tempers and nerves had just about had it), there was a sound of paddles and a Lancastrian voice came out of the gloom asking if we would like to raft up next to them (they were on Viola’s mooring buoy). Fifteen minutes later, we were safely attached to Tangaroa and were sharing beers with our saviours, Dave and Eileen from Bolton. What stars!

Force 10 from Cephalonia

Tuesday 7/Wednesday 8 November 2007
It took a couple of days to start feeling normal after the Frikes incident but we couldn’t have been in a better place to aid our recovery. Plenty of pottering about in the golden autumnal sunshine countered the cyclical post-mortems of Tuesday night’s events. We still felt quite shaken up but the post-terror numbness was beginning to subside.

Thursday 9 November 2007
We started to run out of water so I paid a visit to the Port Police to find out how we could get the taps turned on. The news I was given wasn’t great. Everything was turned off – there was no water. And he told us we needed to move to the harbour wall as strong SW winds were coming in the following day and the pontoon would be untenable. It was already quite breezy so re-mooring was quite tricky but we ended up with a good spot.

Friday 9 November 2007
Awoke to another bright, sunny day. Southerly winds but not particularly strong. We spent the day doing boat jobs and storm preparation (much to the amusement of the locals – “Just relax” – yeh, right). I swam down to the anchor (visibility incredible, water deep blue and so clear) and was quite concerned that there wasn’t enough chain out and the anchor hadn’t dug in very well. There was only 10 metres of chain lying on the sea bed and the holding didn’t look particularly good. But it was better than most, whose anchors were simply lying on the bed. We would have reanchored but it was quite breezy and Tim was confident that it was okay.

The wind started to get up in the evening. Went to the only bar that was open, 5 euros a pint, total rip off poncey place. I drank a bit too much to fight off the feelings of foreboding.

Saturday 10 November 2007
4am – got up to do anchor check as storms flashing around. All okay. Shite night’s sleep though.
6am – was half awake when I felt a knock. It sounded like the boat had made contact with the quay. A few minutes later there was a big bang. Yes, we had definitely made contact with the quay that time.

Both leapt up, stuck the engine on and tightened up the anchor but it wasn’t holding. Purple lightening flashed all around, providing some light in the dawn gloom as we tried to hold the boat off the quay. The wind had changed direction. It was now a northerly not a southerly. It started to piss it down – told Tim to get some bloody clothes on (he insisted on wearing his dressing gown as usual). A fisherman came down to check his boat and told us that we should move to the other side of the harbour as the forecast had changed. There was a N/NW force 9-10 heading our way. Force 10 for fuck’s sake. We had to move.

Navtex: Storm Warning 10 November valid from 1100 to 2200 UTC: North Ionian NW strong gale 9 locally storm force 10.

Armed with this news and a bit of daylight, I woke up the crew of Riesling, a Croation boat that we’d given the Navtex forecast to the night before and told a man, dressed only in his pants, that we may need their help. Three of the six men offered their services and helped us moor up on the other side of the harbour. Took 20 minutes or so to get the right line as the wind was gusting hard onto our port quarter but with some brave helming (if I do say so myself), we got in. Lots easier with crew, I can tell you!

Spent the morning getting soaked whilst securing the boat as best we could with springs (ropes) out to parts of the harbour wall. I took the dogs up to the headland and the sea was looking very nasty. A few big ships were rolling and struggling. Pure exhilaration, feeling the wind, so strong and wild up there – yet it felt so safe! Enjoyed the land-based moment – rather than the lurching, stomach churning, nerve-wracking motion on board. Branches were starting to come down from the trees as I returned to the boat.

Around midday we started getting worried. Big surges were coming in and we were being lifted too near to the quay. We loosened our mooring lines and tightened our anchor some more. This worked for a short while but we were soon too close to the quay again. We weren’t being blown onto the quay – it was surging water, literally picking the boat up then dropping it. We “discussed” how much more anchor chain we could pull in before it put too much strain on the anchor – we had 40 metres down which seemed ample to me – but I could see Tim’s point. We still need to find out more about this.

1300: We were down below making food when the boat lurched forward then was carried back and CRASH. Everything went flying. Seconds later, the same thing happened again as we rushed up top. Stuck the engine on then ran to the back of the boat and burst into tears (not very Squireslike). Our scoop was splintered, bashed up and broken. The fenders were a sorry sight. The storm surge had picked us up and dropped onto the edge of the quay. The Greek men with their usual (amusing) two pennies worth of advice were suddenly nowhere to be seen.

1315 – 2030
The next horrendous seven hours were spent trying everything within our power to keep the boat away from the wall as the winds increased to F9-10 and the huge seas outside the harbour created an (apparently) unprecedented swell. Around every five minutes, the sea picked up boats of all sizes and attempted to lift them out of the water onto the quayside, reminiscent of the aftershocks of the Asian tsunami (this isn’t a trite comparison – I was there, I saw it). It was completely chaotic and after a few hours, I became almost resigned to the fact that the boat was going to get smashed to pieces. It was horrifying. I can confess to casting my eyes skyward on a couple of occasions.

I spent most of my time with hand on the throttle, powering forward whenever a surge came in. Tim ran around the quay trying to find new ways of securing us. Around 1600 our anchor chain went completely slack which almost certainly meant that the anchor had been bounced out by the waves and was no longer holding us. We were now completely dependent on the engine.

An enterprising powerboat owner called Dave, whose boat was getting an absolute battering, plus two voluntary rescue blokes had set up a line which stretched from one side of the harbour to the other. The idea was to tie the bows of boats to it so it would act as an anchor, holding them off the wall. After we’d despatched the dogs to his car (after the posh rip-off taverna refused to let someone look after them in there – wankers), Tim bravely took a line from our bow and got into Billy (our elderly RIB tender). He pulled himself painstakingly across the harbour, with the wind threatening to blow him out to sea, then discovered that the rope was too short so between us we managed to attach another two lengths of rope. Eventually he managed to secure a long line from our bow then pulled himself back across the harbour, in the dark, wind and rain. I tightened the line up and it seemed to work, holding us about 3-4 metres off the quay. Hooray!

Just as Tim was about to get back on the boat, another huge swell came in and we missed the wall by inches. I throttled forward yet again and the engine stuttered – then died. I tried to start her up again but she wasn’t having any of it. Momentary elation at a possible solution turned to soul-sapping disbelief – how could this happen now? It seemed to get yet darker, colder and wetter.

I tightened up the long line some more, Tim got the dogs and deposited them in an empty building (I know – believe me, I know) and got back on board. Wired to fuck and not making much sense, he refused to take a breather – god knows I needed one so he must have done – and set about bleeding the fuel system. We tried the engine again and thank god, it worked.

Then, as exhaustion really started to kick in, things appeared to be calming down. We didn’t want to raise our hopes too much but the wind did seem to have lessened. Our Navtex (provides weather print outs every 4 hours) ran out of paper and our brains were too addled to fit a new roll. Monitoring channel 16 (emergency VHF channel) was becoming too grim, listening to Mayday after Mayday. So no more weather reports. A good thing too as it turned out as the gale was forecast to continue all night and I don’t know how we’d have dealt with that news.

2100: The long line appeared to be holding us off the quay and the wind had definitely slackened off. Tim was nervously watching his knot that attached two of the ropes (a single sheet bend – t’was all) lifting out of the water when strained, waiting for the moment that it would slip and our last bit of security would be gone. But there was little more we could do. We turned off the engine, collected the dogs, went below, closed the companionway and made some food. Crazily enough, I decided to handmake some chickpea burgers from scratch which is complicated enough at the best of times. These are the days that Cup a Soups are made for. Idiot.

2200-2300: I slept, Tim on watch. Still gusting and surging but definitely calmer.
2320-0040: Tim slept, me on watch. Now feeling pretty bonkers from lack of sleep and too much caffeine.
0100-0200: Tim on watch, me lying awake, playing with dog ears, too wired for sleep. Tim came off watch and reported that all was calm. We decided to call it a day and go to bed.

And that, was that. Or was it…………..

Postscript: the locals told us that the storm surges into Fiskardo were unprecedented and the worst that they had ever seen. It was the same storm that had raged through Holland and parts of East Anglia earlier that week.

As for what else we could have done – well, not that much really under the circumstances. Not venture too far during the winter I guess. The hardcore would say we should have put out to sea as our position was too dangerous. There was no way we would have done in that weather. We could have laid a second anchor but it was unlikely that it would have held in those conditions.

We were quite lucky in the end. The damage we sustained was cosmetic, not structural though it was a bloody awful experience to go through. It wasn’t as frightening as the Frikes journey as our lives were not at risk but we did fear for the boat (which is our home) which was extremely stressful. Puts work stress into perspective anyway. However, for the second time in a week, we’ve seen how we work together in extreme circumstances and we both did very well.

Feel terrible for the dogs but at least we managed to get them off the boat. They have recovered but are still a bit jumpy around loud bangs – but that’s what dogs do I guess.