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.