About a week ago, after swinging merrily at anchor for four nights, Martina returned to Carina in the dinghy with Lily and Katie to find the steps at the back of the boat higher than usual and difficult for the girls to reach. She called to me and I came outside to take a look. I quickly saw that the front of the boat was lower in the water than the back. It was approaching high water and the anchor chain was vertical, pulling the front down with a great strain. I couldn’t budge the chain because it had locked itself tight on the cleat. I called to Martina for a hammer and bashed the chain off the cleat, letting out a bit of slack. “Get the engine on” I shouted. We tried to free the chain by pulling it vertically with the winch and then in various directions under motor but Carina just bucked and dived under the pressure and the chain went nowhere. The chain was pinned to the river bed in 10 m water at a point around 20 m from the anchor (The anchor being the point the chain should be pinned at). With darkness approaching and the boat too close to the shore to be comfortable letting more chain out, I said “We’re going on the pontoon in Alcoutim. I’ll buoy the anchor.” I fixed a couple of floats onto the chain and chucked the whole lot overboard. This left our main anchor and 50 m of good new chain in the river as we motored onto the pontoon and settled down to a cold beer from the Riverside Bar to settle our nerves.
After some thought we decided to take Carina out the next morning at low water while the girls were at school to try to free the anchor chain. At first we tried a vertical pull on the windlass but the chain was still stuck fast at exactly the same point. We then cleated the very end of the chain to Carina and set off in various directions giving a near horizontal pull under full engine power. We got nowhere. It was stuck fast. Disheartened and with a couple of bloody knuckles we returned to the pontoon. At least we had tried.
It was time for Plan B. As it happened Plan B was alongside the pontoon in the shape of a 50 tonne wooden ship called Pax Nostrum. With her engine and large geared winches she could pull harder than anything on the river. Paul and Hilary, on Pax, had only just returned from England and were happy to help but they wouldn’t be ready to leave the pontoon for another week. A new Plan B arrived in the shape of Mike from the US yacht Pelagic. He had scuba gear and said I could use it. I visited his boat and tentatively suggested we give it a go, whilst drinking a lovely cup of coffee (he roasts the beans himself). I was a little afraid he would just lend me the kit because I haven’t scuba dived in four years and the cold fast flowing river water is full of silt with zero visibility and who knows what on the bottom! Mike kindly said he would dive as his wetsuit would not fit me. We agreed to do it the next day. I breathed a sigh of relief and prepared to go and support him.
The next day came and Mike was not feeling great. He had picked up a cold and thought he might have trouble clearing his ears. However, the day after he was feeling better and off we went with purpose in our two little inflatable dinghies, Mike wearing his wetsuit and me in shorts and a T-shirt. We picked up the buoy and pulled the chain up until it was vertical, then let off a metre or two of slack so he might try and unhook it from whatever it was caught on. After sorting out his gear, over the side and down he went leaving me to wait and see. I watched his bubbles breaking the surface. After about 5 minutes he surfaced, and I looked at him with anticipation. “I just can’t clear my ears” he said
“Will you be able to try again?”
“Yes, just give me a few minutes,” Mike replied. I was anxious, it looked like Pax Nostrum might be the only chance. If that failed we were looking at the loss of 400 euros worth of kit and the hassle of replacing it before we could anchor again. Mike tried again but to no avail, he was unable to equalise the pressure in his ears, which is very uncomfortable, so he got back into the dinghy. “I could give it a try” I said half-heartedly.
“Sure, if you want to” was not the reply I necessarily wanted or expected, but next thing I know I’m taking off my T-shirt and putting on his tank and buoyancy jacket. His wetsuit, hood and boots wouldn’t fit me so I strapped his fins on tight without the boots, checked the air and plunged over the side of the dinghy.
Hell! The cold water was a shock. Hardly freezing but it took my breath away, it is mid February after all. I held onto the dinghy gasping for half a minute until my breathing calmed and became regular again. I wonder if some of it was down to nerves or even my less than optimum physical condition! “Let’s give this a go then.” What can I lose? If I just go down and hate it I’ll surface again and go back dejected, I thought. Here goes! I started descending along the chain. Visibility was zero after about two metres and I was in complete darkness so I closed my eyes. Shutting off my useless vision helped me to concentrate on the feel of the chain and on my sense of direction, including in the vertical. Another little way down and I had a bit of a head freeze, but only a little and this passed relatively quickly.
I touched the bottom. The river bed was nice and soft here, sandy mud. I felt with my hands, the chain was wrapped around something, it felt like a tree branch, about 6 inches diameter and sticking out of the river bed at an angle for about two feet. I unwind the chain, nice and easy and pull in the slack, great; I follow it a bit more; it is completely wrapped around another smaller stump. Same process free it, get it away, next branch. The chain disappears under the mud, I dig it out and wind it off the branch, this process repeated six or seven times until I find myself working along free chain. I am elated when my fingers touch the unmistakable metal of the anchor. Then I begin to pull the chain toward the anchor, piling it up near me, hoping with every pull that it will not snag again, until finally I feel the chain rise up through the water, it is free!
Slowly and surely I rise up along the chain. I am feeling fabulous. I am not cold, not tired, not nervous but relaxed and euphoric. I have that lovely feeling I remember from dives long ago, of lying on my back in Bristol University swimming pool watching the bubbles rise above me on a Wednesday evening over 20 years ago. Then I break the surface. “We can pull it up,” I say with what must be a bit of a grin on my face. We have our anchor back. Mike hauls with all his might and I help a little using the buoyancy of the jacket to take the strain.
(Martina has pointed out to me that many people think anchors work by their weight alone and might wonder how we could get one into a dinghy without it sinking. But the anchor and 50 m of chain together weigh a little over 100 kg. The anchor keeps our 12 tonne yacht in place by holding on to something on the bed and a long chain puts more horizontal pull on the anchor rather than lifting it up.)
Later that day I walk into Rogerio’s Riverside Bar with a feeling probably felt to a greater extent by people who have recently become a world champion, only to find everyone’s back turned as they watch the rugby on TV. Never mind. I felt so good I relished the prospect of telling them individually over the next couple of days. Maybe I would also try to lose a darts match or two so I didn’t come across as too insufferable!