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.

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