Sunday, 2 December 2007

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.

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