Anatomy of a Near Catastrophe

7/1/2008

By Tom Morkin

Paros Island, Greece
37 07 N, 25 14 E

After a fine day of hiking on the beautifully verdant and remote Amorgos Island in the Cyclades islands in the Greek Aegean, Liz and I were settled in the cockpit, Med-moored with our stern to the sea wall in downtown Katapola. Feel Free was as much a part of the street scene as the scores of locals seated outside at the street-side cafes. This kind of mooring was a unique experience for us -- one we could easily get used to, and best of all, it was free of charge. We’d been on the move almost every day since leaving Marmaris, our winter base, and we were luxuriating in the idea of spending a restful week in this idyllic spot. Just as we convinced ourselves that Katapola would be home for the next few days, Eric from the Belgian boat Grey Donkey moored on our port side, and called out the recent weather forecast: “Westerly gales of Beaufort 8 and 9. That’s 35 to 40 knots on Tuesday, two days away.” To convert roughly from Beaufort scale to knots, multiply the Beaufort number by 5 and then subtract 5. Why are the weather gods raining on our parade? I lamented. We gotta get outta here, and quick, as this bay is open to the west!


We had a fine day of hiking on the verdant and remote Amorgos

TWe had to make our move the next day. After consulting the Greek Waters Pilot, we decided the north end of large and well protected Paros Island, some 47 miles to the west-northwest, would be a good place to sit out the blow. As it turned out, this gale was to be the biggest depression to sweep across southern Europe this year. That night we were sleeping fitfully, when we heard, “Feel Free, Feel Free!” Was this a dream or was someone calling us? Then, there it was again: “Feel Free, Feel Free. We have to leave. Can you help us?” I scrambled out of bed and up the companionway and sure enough, our Dutch neighbors, Wim and Hedi of the Moody 37 Melody on our starboard side were yelling above the din of the howling southeast wind, that their transom was hitting the town quay and that our transom was within a foot of the concrete wall as well. Valuing their transom more than their dock lines, they released them and charged forward, away from the dock and us, as they retrieved their ground tackle and motored to a more secure haven in these new unforeseen conditions. Still half asleep, I stood at the stern looking at a slowly but inevitably approaching very hard concrete wall. The expression on my face would’ve been somewhere between a stunned mullet and the face of a deer caught in the headlights of a fast moving Mac truck.


Med-moored in downtown Katapola with Grey Donkey to port and Melody to starboard

My severely jolted brain gathered up the data at hand: 25 knots just forward of the starboard beam; cement wall 6 inches off stern; Grey Donkey 3 feet off our port beam, also perilously close to sea wall, the crew of three adjusting lines, pulling in some anchor chain and yelling a lot in French; Feel Free well anchored with 275 feet of 3/8 inch chain down and three stern lines ashore.

The short-term solution was to slack the stern lines and motor forward while taking up 20 feet of chain. Not a bad call for a sleepy stunned mullet. The situation appeared stable. It was noisy, the boat motion was jerky and it was cold, but good enough to return to bed.

Sleep of course was impossible and after an hour we were startled by a bang as one of Grey Donkey’s stern lines snapped and then it was BANG BANG BANG as their fiberglass transom masochistically attacked the seemingly sadistic concrete wall. So it was their turn to get outta Dodge. Miraculously, they managed to take their dock lines with them. Once clear of the quay they retrieved their anchor and re-anchored freely in the turning basin.


From our mooring we were part of the street scene. Here, a dog has a mid-day nap outside a taverna

Alone at the quay now, we decided to stay until dawn unless our situation became untenable and with the light of day move out into the anchorage, which we did. Although the wind was by then southeast in excess of 30 knots, the bay was in the lee of the local mountains and conditions on board improved dramatically. The plan was to sleep for a couple of hours to make up for the lack of sleep before heading off to Paros or another island on the way. After all, we had about 36 hours to our harbor of refuge before the “big” gale was to hit.

Just as I was heading for the bunk, I heard the harbormaster call out to us, “Captain, Captain, the ship, the ship come here. Go! GO!” He waved his arms in a way even a stunned mullet could comprehend. He wanted us to re-anchor further away from the pier that the approaching blue freighter was aiming for.

 

It was precisely at that moment that a number of bad decisions were made that resulted in an increased production of grey hair and an over production of adrenaline of the Feel Free crew. With the aid of acute hindsight and with considerable embarrassment I bare our souls and report our blunders in the hopes others won’t make the same mistakes. Here were our assumptions and decisions:

1) What the heck, if we have to pick up the hook, why don’t we just go? Sure, it’s blowing 30 plus but it’s from the right direction, southeast, and we’re going northwest. How tough is that? After all, the weather gurus are saying that the winds will eventually veer south, then southwest, and finally west, so let’s go while the goin’ is good. Right? (Wrong.)
2)Sure, we’re sleep deprived but I don’t feel tired.
3) We don’t even have to raise the main. We’ll just roll out the jib.
4) We haven’t had breakfast. We’ll just eat under way.
5) We haven’t stowed everything. No problem, we’ll be off the wind.
6) These strong winds in the harbor are probably katabatic in nature so they’re more intense and erratic than they’ll be offshore.
7) We can stop in an anchorage 18 miles away if conditions are too rough.
8) The reduced visibility will improve as the morning wears on.


Minute after agonizing minute we crawled back to port in the howling winds

At Paros Island, the Beaufort Force 9 arrived as predicted.
We hunkered down for the duration

So off we went. With only a tiny rolled out jib we were quickly doing 7 knots dead downwind, feeling somewhat surprised at how quickly the seas were building even in the lee of Amorgos. Also of note, the winds were intensifying the further offshore we got. The visibility under the grey skies was much reduced, no doubt exacerbated by the spume that was in evidence all around us.


The jib’s UV cover, looking very tattered.
Luckily, it was only the seams that had failed

We were about three miles out of the anchorage when all around us was an ever-increasing tempest. Walls of white spume were being carried by invisible forces and we were their targets. We were getting soaked and were still in the lee of the island! What will it be like when we lose the lee? We can’t say what the wind speed was but can say that for sure that it was the highest we’ve experienced in over 14 years with Feel Free and since we believed we hadn’t arrived at the point when we couldn’t turn back, we did and that’s when the _ _ _ t hit the fan!

After starting the motor, we tried to roll in the jib. Liz slacked the sheet and I hauled on the furling line. Nothing. I couldn’t roll it in an inch. It was bar tight and the jib was flailing itself to death. Liz and I together hauled on the furling line for what seemed like an eternity. On Feel Free we never use a winch to furl our headsail, but an exception was made in this case. Even so, progress was painfully slow and we didn’t have the courage to look at the battered jib when it was finally rolled in.

It wasn’t a given we’d be able to motor back against the wind and seas. Only with maximum RPM on our trusty 70-horsepower Isuzu were we able to just turn into the wind. Just to keep the bow into the wind demanded careful steering. One or two knots was just all we could do so that the distance we made in 30 minutes downwind took almost two hours upwind. This meant time enough to chastise myself for not raising a triple-reefed main before we left. That small sail would have greatly assisted our slog to weather.

At times, as we were blown toward the lee shore, the boat would not turn into the wind and we had no alternative but to turn off the wind to do a 270-degree turn to get clear of the lee shore.


After six hours with needle, thread, and palm, we mended our tattered UV cover along the outer edge of the jib

Minute after agonizing minute we approached our point of departure thinking cruising the Med in the spring may not have been one of our best decisions. Finally, we got the hook down but our relief was short lived; we knew we had to regroup and head back into that maelstrom before the gale-force westerlies arrived. In addition to that gloomy thought, when we looked at the furler it seemed that the wind gods had placed about a dozen Tibetan prayer flags on the sail, made from pieces of what once was our UV cover.

After licking our wounds, stowing gear that should have been stowed, eating the meal we should have eaten, before triple reefing the main, we set off again for Paros. The wind and seas were in no way diminished but this time, the 30-40 knots on our quarter didn’t pose the threat they did when we went out half cocked. As it turned out, we had two hours of exhilarating sailing followed by seven hours of motoring in almost no wind, and so it goes for sailors in the Med in the springtime.


Better prepared, reefed, and fed, we set out again

We truly believe we won’t make all those mistakes again any time soon and we are grateful we weren’t too severely punished for the errors of our ways. We did get to Paros before the 36-hour Beaufort Force 9 arrived as did Grey Donkey and Melody, and after the blow it took six hours with needle and thread and palm, to reattach our UV cover/prayer flags to the jib. The sun shone, and the anxieties of the last couple of days soon faded, as they so often do, mercifully, in this sailing life.










 


A cheerful taverna sign depicts the good life in the Greek isles


The sun shone briefly during our stay at Paros Island