Unusual weather

While my mother sent me photos of increasing amounts of snow in her garden, and told me about Ireland coming to a standstill, here in southern Iberia we experienced some extreme weather of our own.

It all started on Tuesday of two weeks ago, to coincide precisely with the start of the children’s five-day weekend. We were forecast heavy rain and high winds for ten days. And did we get it! The same weather system that was causing extreme warm weather in the Arctic, and extreme cold and heavy snowfall in northern Europe, was coming to us as westerly winds bringing rain in off the Atlantic.

The rivers and streams, dry for far too long for the lack of rain, were soon running with vigour. The river bed, where for almost two years we have enjoyed picnics and barbecues on the river bed, was not turned into a fast-flowing river. There were waterfalls and cataracts down previously bone dry fields, and the streets of Sanlúcar were turned into torrents of run-off.

But the rain wasn’t a problem. With virtually no rain since last April, the land has been crying out for moisture and sheep farmers have had to make harsh decisions about the lives of their animals, as the cost of feed over such a prolonged period becomes impossible to meet. No, the rain was a godsend and, after two weeks, the land is verdant and lush.

The problem was the wind. I had planned to move Carina off the Sanlúcar pontoon on the 28th of February and onto a mooring a few hundred metres downriver. But on that morning, those of us who were due to leave were advised to not go anywhere, as conditions were too nasty. I had spent the night before wide awake, as Carina was tossed and dashed against the pontoon, the noise of straining lines coming between me and sleep. With Julian away for a couple of months, the girls have been sharing my bed, and twice that night I snuck out past them, got dressed and went out in the howling wind and driving rain to check the mooring lines, check both dinghies were secure and protected by fenders, and to make sure there was nothing lying about on deck that might fly away. The next day all we could do was look out at the dire conditions.

The next morning, the 1st of March, we went by car to Ayamonte, because the girls both needed new shoes. Down at the river mouth, Ayamonte lacked the protection that Sanlúcar enjoyed, and we struggled to walk back to the car, which was parked close to the marina. The boats in the marina were being tossed around like toys as waves crashed violently over each wooden pontoon. I was glad Carina was twenty-two miles upriver.

When we returned to Sanlúcar at lunchtime the wind had whipped up into a frenzy. The west wind, an unusual wind direction for these parts, pushed the boats hard against the pontoon. When the gusts came, which they did frequently, the seven yachts on the pontoon were pushed precariously on their sides, so their decks almost touched the pontoon. The pontoon itself bucked and swayed and the gangway from the land down onto the pontoon eventually broke, the rope holding it in place shredding under the strain, and calling for a hasty repair job by Tony, our neighbour on Holy Mackerel.

I put extra mooring lines on Carina, but worried about the neighbouring unoccupied boat – if her lines didn’t hold, she might bash into Carina. I was grateful for Tony, who patrolled the pontoon, checking lines, moving dinghies and canoes that were at risk of being squished by the yachts and pontoon they were sandwiched between. Curious, I turned on our electronics, so I could keep an eye on the wind speed. I read one gust of 35mph, and Katie read one of 40mph. I believed her, because when she called ‘40’ down to me, Carina felt like she was being flattened.

I had to take Carina off the pontoon. I had paid for 25 nights, and this was now night 26 and someone else was waiting to take our space. There was no chance of me getting onto the mooring in these conditions and, besides, the mooring itself had become fouled by someone else’s anchor due to the strong wind. When a brief lull in the wind and rain descended as darkness was falling that evening, I made a dash off the pontoon and across to an empty space on the Alcoutim side of the river.

A bunch of people helped me across the river. Lily and Katie did their bit. Linda from Holy Mackerel and Ray from Tinto crewed for me, Tony followed in his dinghy to nudge Carina into the tight space if needed, and Hazel and Katie from Ros Ailither waited on the Alcoutim pontoon to take the lines. Light was fading fast as we crossed the river and, after the stress of the weather, the sudden dash across the river, and the tight space I had to squeeze into in front of two rafted boats, I was a bit of wreck. I temporarily broke my ongoing alcohol-free New Year’s Resolution and invited all my great helpers up to the bar for a beer and had a couple myself!

I hoped, in a day or two, to go on the mooring. But the wind and rain continued apace, with no sign of let-up and the mooring remained fouled with no-one willing (understandably) to untangle it for me in those conditions. On Sunday there were tornados along the coast, causing damage along the Algarve and Huelva coasts. And still the rain and wind continued. Collecting the girls from school and then returning across the river to get to my English lessons was fraught with anxiety, as the wind gusted and the rain reduced my visibility.

We’ve had a slight reprieve since then. My mooring was eventually untangled. It took six people three hours to sort it out, and I finally moved on. The mooring hasn’t all be plain sailing either, but I think it’s sorted out now. We’ve had some bad days since then, with more wind and rain. And there’s more bad weather due later on this afternoon. I’m looking forward to the day when I can sit in my cockpit again. I feel I deserve it!!!

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3000 miles but not all plain sailing

by Julian

Over the last three years, we have sailed 3000 miles in Carina. Almost all of this has been just the four of us. It is the end of the year, so time for reflection and where better to start than with the things that went wrong.
JulianSailingWhen we set out, our open water sailing experience was about 1600 miles for me and 600 miles for Martina. But this is meaningless. Martina’s 600 miles were 50% as crew and 50% as a passenger. She had completed her RYA yachtmaster theory and her RYA dayskipper practical, but she wasn’t even close to sailing a boat independently. I had lots of experience sailing small boats inland, I had completed my RYA coastal skipper practical course but not attempted the exam, and I had skippered a yacht a couple of times but  always with someone more experienced on board. So we were bound to make some mistakes when we set out.

WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG!

1. Don’t assume there isn’t a gas rig there

Our first major crossing to Ireland two years ago involved a black night with very thick fog. We were still many miles off the Irish coast when we started to hear a strange signal. What was it? I woke Martina and we both went up on deck. It wasn’t a ship. There was nothing marked on the paper chart and we were just about to check the electronic chart plotter when a voice came over the radio “This is the stand-off boat for the Head of Kinsale gas rig. Your present course will take you into a restricted area. Please alter course.” A quick zoom in on the chart plotter revealed that we were a mile away from the restricted area. We altered course and ten minutes later the thick fog lifted to reveal two giant gas rigs lit up like Christmas trees. In fact they reminded me of the flying saucer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

2. My ‘Open Water 2 : Adrift’ moment

We had just put the sails on Carina for the first time and were out for our first ever sail when we anchored in a cove near Torquay. We were sitting happily in the cockpit when Lily decided to throw the winch handle overboard. I am a strong swimmer and have some experience as a diver. We were in a sheltered cove, near a beach and the water was about 5 metres deep. I reckoned I stood a chance of retrieving the winch handle, so I jumped in. The water was too murky to find it. I then realised that, unlike the charter yachts I’d been on previously, I couldn’t get back on board Carina! Of course at that time I hadn’t yet made my rope ladder and the dinghy was deflated and stowed on deck. After several attempts and great difficulty I eventually managed to pull myself on board with the help of a rope chucked over the side, but I know I looked pretty stupid.

3. Headlands on a lee shore

It took me two years of sailing Carina and three similar situations, for me to learn a valuable lesson about rounding headlands. If you are sailing close hauled, never assume the tack you are on will get you around a headland. First, the wind is blowing you onto shore. Second, no matter how insignificant the headland, there will often be a change in wind direction, usually strengthening as well, along with worsening sea conditions. Effectively sailing single handed in 2012, with Martina taking care of the kids (one reason why I probably hadn’t attempted to change tack), I was thankfully able to react before things got out of hand. Heart in mouth I usually don’t bother to tell anyone, I’m sure I’d only worry them. Now I know why my dad was never happy sailing like that!

4. Slipping the anchor

Twice this year we have slipped the anchor. The first time was near Truro, Cornwall, England. For various reasons, I didn’t have enough chain out. The wind got up and steadily built to a fierce onshore near gale. The bay shallowed gently and we were about to go aground. Martina tried to turn the engine on and the throttle didn’t work. We went aground. I quickly got into the dinghy and motored out to throw in an extra anchor upwind of Carina. The extra anchor held us and as the rising tide re-floated us I had time to look at the engine. Somehow the throttle cable had popped out of the new control lever we had only just had fitted by Dicky B Marine in Plymouth. This was only the second day of using it since it was fitted. Luckily it didn’t cost us our boat or our lives.

The second time was in Ria de Arousa, Spain. This time a less dangerous but equally strong offshore breeze got up, and the next thing I knew we were bumping up to a large buoy of one of the mussel rafts (the raft itself was thankfully on the beach). A little epoxy filler was needed and I pulled up the greenest stretch of anchor chain I have ever seen.

5. We’re not where we thought we were!

We had already successfully sailed through the Chenal du Four in Brittany once, so maybe I was a bit too casual on the return trip north last year. I completely misidentified a mark. We don’t have a chart plotter in the cockpit so it is necessary to pop down to the chart table to see the electronic chart. Thankfully things looked wrong enough that I did just that. We were out at sea but had I not altered course things could have been messy as rocks were not far from the surface. On another occasion I entered the Ria de Arousa through the wrong channel. Not that this wasn’t possible, given the relatively good conditions of the day, it was just not what I had planned. I could see the marks and they looked fine but the rocks looked awfully close together. I popped down and had a look at the plotter. We were fine but I was sure my passage plan of the morning didn’t look quite like this. It wasn’t until after the sail I realised what had happened.

6. When the wind blows

In 2013, my friend John joined us for a trip to France. He had been on boats before but had never done any sea sailing. Heading from Fowey to Roscoff the forecast gave west-southwest to southwesterly winds which would give us at least 50 degrees sailing off the wind. Force 4 to 5, occasional showers (some thundery) didn’t sound too bad. At 12 tonnes, Carina is a heavy boat for her 36ft, and she doesn’t have a large sail area. Nevertheless, given the crew and the night crossing, I put a reef in the mainsail and reefed in some of the headsail, reducing their area, and we travelled along a little slower than we could have done. Then I spotted the thunderstorm. I thought it would miss us but it didn’t. I should have reacted in precaution but I didn’t and the storm hit us relatively quickly. The next 30 minutes were accompanied by force 7 to 8 winds, with two gusts just tipping over to force 9. This was made even more spectacular by the continual lightning flashing all around, the earsplitting thunder and the violent horizontal hailstorm making it nearly impossible to see anything. Somehow we got through it without anything breaking (apart from the toilet seat). What a ride for a first time sailor! I can only say John proved himself to be a pretty tough cookie. He didn’t abandon us the moment we got to France and he proved very useful on the helm for someone with so little experience.

Conclusion

It’s not all plain sailing. However, incidents are getting fewer. I don’t sail close to lee shores unless I am coming into port and absolutely have to (generally the engine will be running even if still under sail). I check every inch of the passage on the most up to date detailed chart I possess and always work on the assumption that there is going to be something unexpected out there, I just don’t know about it yet. Starting out as relative amateurs we have sailed 3000 miles aboard Carina and, whilst neither of us are great sailors, we are getting a lot better. One thing for certain is that things do go wrong. We just have to work at reducing the risks and making sure we know how to deal with problems when they occur.

Gallic heroism

We had been at anchor in the ria for a few days and the weather was mixed. On one side were the moored local fishing boats and beyond us three other yachts – a French family, a Dutch couple and two German men. As evening wore on the wind grew stronger and a steady rain fell. It was about 9pm and I was serving supper on the table in the saloon when something caught my eye through the port light. It was the mast of another yacht, weaving about precariously between us and the Dutch boat.

Nosiness getting the better of me, I stepped up into the cockpit and watched as the crew of this new boat dropped anchor under sail. This was no evening for sailing in the confined space of the back end of a ria, and I assumed their engine was not working. The next thing the yacht – flying a French flag and with five adults on board – drifted dangerously close to the Dutch boat, much to the surprise and consternation of the Dutch couple!

I went back down to the saloon to eat dinner. Lily, dinner quickly eaten, went into the cockpit. ‘There’s someone in the water’, she called down. We assumed she was playing a trick on us and we’d go up to take a look and Lily would say ‘haha, only joking’! But not this time. There really was someone in the water. The French boat had by now drifted past the Dutch boat, past the other boats, and towards the rocky shore, with two anchor chains hanging from the bow and one of the crew in the water. Like the crew of the other three yachts at anchor, we watched the action from our cockpit.

The crewman in the water bobbed up and down on the choppy sea. When one of the others handed him down a knife, he clenched it between his teeth and disappeared under the water! Fouled prop, we thought. Poor guy has no choice but to dive into the chilly choppy sea.

Moments later he was back on the boat, in black swimming shorts and a towel draped around his shoulders. Now that I could see more than just his bobbing head on the surface of the water I realised he looked remarkably like one of my senior colleagues at Exeter University and imagining my colleague engaged in such heroics made me laugh hard! By and by, water and black exhaust fumes began to pump from the exhaust pipe, and we knew the engine was working again.

The yacht, however, was still drifting dangerously close to the rocky shore and our swimming hero appeared to be the only one eager to do anything about it, while the rest of the crew stood around looking dazed. For the boat to get away from the rocks, the two anchors needed to be hauled in, but it appeared that the anchor windlass was not working and our hero could not pull them in by hand. Next thing we knew, our hero had dived off the bow and disappeared down the anchor chain. Whether his actions saved the day or not, we don’t know, but a few minutes later he was swimming alongside and once again climbing aboard astern.

One anchor was hauled in and that freed the boat enough to get forward momentum away from the rocks. It was only a matter of minutes before the yacht had anchored successfully and the crew had all disappeared below decks.

The next morning, as we prepared to depart, we saw the skipper in the dinghy, repeatedly failing to start the outboard motor. After ten or fifteen minutes, he called up to the crew and someone brought him a jerry can of petrol. Oops! But, despite putting fuel in the tank, the outboard still wouldn’t start, and Julian and I imagined our hero once again diving into the sea, clenching the dinghy painter between his teeth, and swimming to shore, hauling the dinghy behind him. And we imagined his heroic return with a dinghy full of coffee and croissants for his famished crewmates. Alas, our fantasies were not to be fulfilled. With the useless outboard still attached, the five climbed into the little dinghy and our hero paddled them, canoe-style, to shore, like a latter day Merriweather Lewis!

You see, this is why I hate looking like a fool when undertaking boat manoeuvres. There are always people like me around, smugly sitting in their cockpits, glasses of gin and tonic in hand, guffawing at my poor seamanship.

A storm

Our wonderful summer of sailing is now a dim and distant memory. Without my laptop and with only limited access to public computers in France, I was generally unable to keep my blog up to date during the summer. In the past week some followers have been in touch, wondering if my family and Carina are keeping well, and encouraging me to carry on writing. Oh, how I have longed to write. But time has conspired against me. I’ve taken on a new job in the Geography department at Exeter University and preparing for the start of term has been a akin to competing in back-to-back triathlons for three weeks. (Please don’t scoff, my triathlon friends!).

Ominous skies

Ominous skies

But here I am, delving into my travel journal to bring you new stories from our summer in France.

Lily and John

Lily and John

We departed Fowey, on the Cornish coast on the 2nd of August. Our destination was Roscoff, on the north coast of Brittany, and the weather forecast ‘promised’ force 3-4 winds, occasionally gusting to force 5. We spent the day preparing for our departure, our friend John fishing with the girls off the pontoon, while Julian and I got on with preparing food, running engine checks, and all the myriad little jobs that must be attended to before a long voyage. At 6pm we set out.

The water was a touch choppy as we exited Fowey, but we thought it would soon pass. I served up a potato gratin, and as we ate we began to hear thunder in the west and see flashes of lightning in the distance.

The girls were restless. They wanted to be below deck and then in the cockpit. They wanted to go to bed, and they wanted to stay up. Between serving up dinner and dealing with restless children, I began to feel seasick.

When the storm hit, the girls were in the saloon, and their behaviour changed completely. They sat calmly together, seeming to enjoy the crazy motion of the boat, and perhaps enjoying looking at the range of emotions passing across my face, as I sat in the cockpit.

The clouds grew darker to the west and the thunder grew louder, with intervals between thunder and lightning getting shorter and shorter. With Julian on the helm and John and I sitting in the cockpit, Carina was blasted by wind gusting sometimes to force 8, and sheets of rain pouring down on us. The rain turned to hail, hitting Julian in the face as he grimly tried to hold Carina.

John and I sat under the spray hood, but nonetheless got soaked. Carina was leaning hard to port, creating a pool of water that sloshed under John’s bottom and legs with each side-on wave we sailed over. I got wet from the sheer volumes of rain passing over the boat and from the waves that crashed over us. The waves pounded the boat, growing bigger as the storm passed over. The Cornish coast, moments earlier clearly visible behind us, had now disappeared into the mist and all around us was cloud and rain, thunder roaring like the gods driving tractors across the sky.

My heart pounded with fear, and the adrenelin of battling the storm put paid to my seasickness, and my nausea and headache vanished.

And then we were in the eye of the storm. The rain continued unabated, but the wind died to nothing and the sea was eerily calm. We knew it wouldn’t last. In no time we were into the other side of the storm, the waves crashing, the wind gusting, Julian akin to Ahab, rain pouring down his beard, a look of grim determination on his face. Only the girls seemed immune to it all, laughing and talking as though they enduring such conditions every day of the week.

But soon we could see the sky clearing to the west and as the wind and rain eased, the Cornish coast once again appeared behind us, and we watched the storm roll away to the east. And before long, it had passed over us, the bright skies to starboard in sharp contrast to the forbidding black to port.

Us three adults were cold and wet, and took turns going below to change into dry, warm clothes. But that was the end of the stormy weather. I saw one more flash of lightning at about 3am, when I was at the helm, but with the exception of hard leaning all the way to France, the rest of the twenty-two hour sail passed (generally) without incident.

John certainly received a sailing baptism of fire!