Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Boat separation anxiety

After 14 months of living aboard Monty B, we moved onto dry land yesterday. Just in the nick of time too as the weather has now turned. An angry low is passing overhead, the wind is howling (well, no, it's rustling now we are on land) and waves are kicking up like crazy across the Boka. I think we've squeezed all we can out of the summer - we've been at anchor for 6 months which isn't bad going.

We are in a lovely apartment in Prcanj, very kindly rented to us by our very first customers on a Day out on Monty B who immediately became friends. The deal is, we have the apartment over winter, they get free sailing when they come out here. How good is that? The perfect non-capitalist approach to getting what you need in life - 'tis a pity Niksic brewery doesn't operate on similar lines.

The novelty of space, two sofas, a huge bed, unlimited water, hot water will take a while to wear off. We have a fantastic sea and mountain view too, we are just one row back from the water so I still get my fix every day.

It is just goddamned weird NOT being on the boat. The world doesn't rock and it's so quiet - and easy. Which works both ways and at the moment, with forecast winds of F7/8 across the Adriatic, I am glad to be on land. I just need to go and check on Monty B - she is all alone, on a punta down the road, being blown about with no one to look after her. The sooner we get her hauled out, the better - then I can stop worrying............. must go.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Tree hugging in Biogradska Gora

The occasional waft of autumn leaves had left me wanting, so last weekend we headed north, into the mountainous, rugged interior of Montenegro. Four hours later, we were camped on a bed of fallen beech and maple leaves, beneath what was left of the canopy of the awesome Biogradska Gora, one of the few remaining virgin forests in Europe.

I had been there in the spring with my friend, Eleanor, so it came as something of a shock to see an almost entirely evaporated lake, Biogradska Jezero. The jungle-like virgin forest, brilliant green yet dark and dank beneath the heavy spring canopy had been replaced by a bright, sun-lit golden world. The silvery trunks of the beech trees had become fragile and slender without their lifeblood; their canopy of luscious, succulent green leaves. The forest floor which had been carpeted with white wild garlic flowers was now deep with fallen russets, oranges, yellows and painfully beautiful reds.

Every breath of wind sent clouds of leaves falling, like snow, from the highest branches.

I got my autumn fix; a heady, soul-cleansing few days and I yet again felt the urge to build a modest A-frame home in the mountains, for me and my brood (of Jack Russells).

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Foggy mornings get me out of bed

The water is so still at the moment, it is so silent it feels like I have cotton wool in my ears. It is a weird sensation being on the water when there is not a breath of wind, not a ripple. Your body still knows it is in something that is floating, so you feel a little floaty yourself but in any other way, you could be in a house.

The high pressure system we are under at the moment is causing the bay to be enveloped in thick fog every morning. If the sound of cruise liners sounding their fog horns doesn't wake me, the earthy, primeval smell of fog drifts in through the cabin hatch and like a child, I wake up immediately, throw on my fleecy clothes and stick my head up on deck. It has been the same every day for over a week but the damp, white mornings remain a thing of wonder.

I paddled out in Billy the other morning, slowly dipping the paddle into the perfectly still water, just sat still and breathed it all in.
In a few weeks time we will be taking Monty B out of the water for the winter. It is times like this that I will miss.
I won't miss having a wet bum every morning though (from the dew on Billy's sides, nothing more exciting than that!).

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Boka turns nasty in pre-Adventure Race drama

I was awoken at 0530 on the day of the Adventure Race, by the onset of strong winds. However, keeping to plan and our volunteer duties, we hauled anchor at 0900 to head off towards Tivat to help with the race. There was a SW wind blowing around 20 knots and angry skies but nothing too intense to worry about. We debated putting some sail up as we left but on reaching the middle of bay, we were glad we hadn't as the wind was gusting hard and it had quickly kicked up quite a swell. We moved the dogs below as spray started coming over the deck and cockpit. Umm, good fun but very unusual for what is, essentially, a big lake.

Menacing, dirty clouds formed a line ahead of us towards Perast and Verige, blasting along and swirling low. Looking like thick, black smoke, the bottom of the clouds were being sucking vertically upwards and towering above us. Behind, towards Kotor, visibility was diminishing as the cloud and rain closed in. Umm, things were deteriorating by the minute and certainly more severe than forecast, but it felt like a challenge - we know the Boka, we weren't out at sea, how bad could it get?

As we surfed down mini-waves, towards the Verige channel, the sound that every helmsman dreads began: the revs dropped, then dropped again and before you could say "Fkg hell, why does this ALWAYS happen when you least need it to?", the engine cut out. "TIIIMMM!! SHIIIITTTT!!!". Quickly, we rigged up the jib sheets (they were coiled and tidied on the bow) and we got enough headsail out to take up downwind at a pedestrian pace. Tim then had to tighten up the rig as we had it slack while at anchor. He then went below to bleed the fuel system.

I felt unusually on edge. We'd been in this situation before, we knew what to do but the line of clouds we were heading towards was like nothing I had seen before (and believe me, I spend a lot of time looking at the sky). My catastrophic imagination had tornadoes and lightening bolts galore, building up especially for our arrival. The updraught from the clouds looked incredible, the wind was intensifying and spray was blowing all around. As I stared hard ahead, my fear grew as the water about 1km ahead became very disturbed indeed. It was being blown around, seemingly several metres into the air, by squally winds and a yacht appeared from the gloom, heeling right over, whilst under bare poles and motor, legging it out of there as fast as it could. SHIT! There was no way we were deliberately sailing into that lot.

"TIMMM!!" We needed to get the mizzen up, I couldn't leave the helm. Driven by a little panic on my part, we tried to reef it. A bad decision with hindsight: it didn't need reefing, it isn't an easy sail to reef and we'd never done it before. But I was scared of having too much canvas up and being hit by a freak gust if we got into the middle of whatever was ahead of us.

Then it started getting very messy. The wind started swinging around violently, backing the headsail and I fought to control the boat. Friends of ours, Laura and Tony, who have a vast amount of sailing experience were en route to Tivat by road and could see us. Laura phoned, "Are you okay??", "Err, yes and no", "Do you need a tow from Dave??", "Nah, we'll be fine". Idiot.

Things went from bad to worse. Beam on to the gusting wind, we couldn't get the mizzen up, then as the wind switched again we tried to furl the headsail but the lazy jib sheet (with no stopper knot as it was rigged in a hurry), let fly out of the runners, nearly flogging Tim to death. We watched in grizzly fascination, unable to do a thing, as it whirled itself a zillion times around the working jib sheet, rendering our headsail utterly useless. Brilliant!

Meanwhile, we were being blown, fast, towards an uninviting rocky shoreline with little control. My phone rang - it was Dave. Laura had, very sensibly, called him anyway. "Do you need a tow?", "Ermm.......", "Okay, you do, I'll be here as soon as I can".

A ghastly 15 minutes ensued - wind all over the place, Tim managed to unravel the jib sheet and we got the headsail back up but we couldn't get moving due to the poor set of the mizzen and fluctuating wind direction. The boat wanted to move sideways, not forwards. As we edged closer to shore, the wind suddenly dropped completely. We were head to (no) wind, in irons, drifting towards rocks 50 metres away and closing. (Please, someone, tell us how we could have sailed out of this).

Tim was down below desperately bleeding the system, three attempts at starting the engine failed. I rang Dave, panicking at this point and feeling completely helpless, "How close are you?" I squeaked, "You should be able to see us in a minute, where exactly are you?".

"THIS IS USELESS, TIM!" I yelled, on another failed attempt at starting the engine. "We need to drop the anchor, NOW, while we still can". "One more try....", shouted the ever-optimistic Tim. Panting by this point (a trick I've learnt from the terrified Louis), I turned the ignition key again, praying as it turned over, juddered.......then sprang into life. I gave it a few seconds then turned Monty B from the shore and away as fast as we could.

At this point, what appeared to be a tiny powerboat, came crashing through the waves towards us, carrying our heroes, Dave and Peter. Both were soaked to the skin with seawater, having come through a 2m swell in the bay. They had done a magnificent job at getting to us and Dave's boat isn't really built for that kind of thing. They shadowed us back across the bay, to Ljuta, which was slow but steady going. Kotor and Vramac were completely invisible in could and the black filth continued to swirl away upwards from the mountains - I've never seen the clouds so low.

Amazingly, we remained dry until we dropped anchor in relative safety, in our usual spot in Ljuta. We waved our sodden heroes bye by, turned off the engine, calmed the dogs then ourselves with a glass of red. Jesus, all that and it was only 1115!
So, okay, the post mortem.

As always, you pick events over again and again to try to work out what you could have done better. But when all's said and done, it was just one of those situations where several factors combine (someone reckons it takes three things) to turn something minor into something much more major. And it all happens very quickly.

A few points to note:

1) We should have rigged the jib sheets before leaving, in case of emergency, ditto the rig.

2) We thought it was crap in the fuel system that had caused the problem, dislodged by the sea-state and it is one of those ironies that this only happens when the weather is bad ie. when you least want it to. However, we have had the same problem several times since and we now think their is an airleak somewhere. We do need to clean the tanks out this winter though.

3) We need to learn how to get out of irons.

4) We shouldn't have tried to reef the mizzen and it would have made sense to get it up immediately (I didn't want to leave the helm).

5) A hard call and great with hindsight but once things had gone tits up with the jib sheets tangling the headsail, Tim should've gone below and bled the system as this took far less time than it did to sort out the sails. But as I say, easy with hindsight.

6) But most importantly, echoed by our fellow sea-folk, was that we should have asked for assistance earlier i.e. before it became critical. We would, of course, help anyone in this situation - it is not an imposition! (except, apparently, for the yacht that went racing past us towards Kotor as we were flying about in circles, quite clearly in trouble - cheers, whoever you were!!). We are used to getting on with things alone but you need to know when to ask for help. And we were hugely grateful for the support we got.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Near miss

Something strange happened today.

I was walking up the old Austro-Hungarian track above Muo to Vramac ridge with the dogs. It is a typical zig-zag, heavily built stone track similar to the Ladder of Cattaro, behind Kotor. After an hour or so of gentle uphill, I stopped to take in the view and have some water when, out of the quiet, there was a truly strange, heart-stopping sound of crashing through the undergrowth below me. For a moment, I thought a herd of beasts was stampeding down the mountain but the crashing was followed seconds later by the clattering and banging of rocks, cascading below and the realisation struck my shocked brain that there was some kind of landslide going on. Not for the first time in my life, I was unable to act or take in what was happening and just stood there, as though waiting to see what would happen next.

Then it went silent, save a few stray boulders continuing to tumble.

I decided to turn back, feeling quite shaky, jumping at the crunch of every twig (no hero I). Half way down, the dogs then I, found the reason for all this madness. A large tree had decided to choose its moment to give up living and throw itself down the mountainside, taking with it everything in its path and smashing into several pieces. Huge, cuboid slabs that had been laid more than 150 years ago, had been easily uprooted from their comfortable positions and tumbled headlong down the slope. I continued walking, counting my lucky stars (even the dogs looked worried), and as I looked back up the zig-zags, a dark, troubled scar of fresh earth, combined with the rock fall and wooden detritus made for some sharp intakes of breath.

It is always easy to say.......however, if I had been 10 minutes later, I may not have this story to tell. And if it had been a day later, 30 Adventure Race runners would have been panting their way up that very path.

Doesn't bear thinking about.
Pic is sundown at our current position. Nice.