30 Sept 2011

[Captains Blog] Gibraltar

Well, all attempts to get to Gib by sea were thwarted, and I arrived here by taxi. We set sail from Sines in clear skies and headed out towards the south, not even bothering about being 50 miles offshore as there was no qualifying possibility for this leg of the passage now. As we rounded Cape St Vincent with its magnificant lighthouse perched on the edge of the spectacular cliffs that bordered the sea, all was going well. I had called up a passing freighter on the radio to find out the weather forecast for the area to be told that they were expecting northerly winds, force 3-4. What utter rubbish! Every forecast but one was completely misleading, and I will come to that one shortly. Watch on, watch off, sleep when you can, pump the bilges, enjoy the sun's rays, pump the bilges, take some sun sightings, pump the bilges, prepare and eat food, pump the bilges - you begin to get the picture. 

Yesterday dawned after a red sky on Wednesday night full of promise. The wind was veering towards the east and the forecast was east to south east force 4-5 - potentially a good sailing day. Another freighter came close by so we called them on the VHF radio to get their weather forecast. Not so good news: a Levanter wind was kicking up and was blowing a hooley from the East, force 6-7 maybe storm force 8 throught the straits of Gibraltar. Nonetheless, we plugged on beating our way towards our destination, zigging and zagging along our track. Come dusk, we shortened the mainsail down to 3 reefs (still with no foresail, and the forestay supported by two halyards now just in case it decided to part company), I also created a new soon-to-be-patented backstay reinforcer - the "Witting Wrapper" which basically was a set of rolling hitches lashed onto the steel backstay to prevent it parting company with the gas strut that pumped up the pressure on the backstay, raked (put a bend in) the mast and tensioned the forestay. Then we watched as the winds and wave heights rapidly increased. When the winds were a steady 40 knots and the seas were tossing us around like we were in a tumble drier we were still 50 miles or so away from our waypoint at the entrance to the straits. 

During the next three hours of tacking and bashing into the ever steepening seas, we had made the grand total of 4 miles to the east and our destination - only another 46 to go, which at our present rate of progress would have taken more than another 36 hours. The boat was suffering from the constant pounding of the waves and several fittings were broken in the maelstrom: Cupboard doors parted company with their gas strut supports and were hanging limp and lifeless on their hinges; Renny (one of the crew) threw up, fortunately, he waited until I furnished him with the ship's bucket, the door to a storage locker was stoved in when a particularly strong thump on the bow took me by surprise and threw me across the cabin; oh, and did I mention that we pumped the bilges? The waves crashing over the bow sent what seemed like 3000 gallons of seawater across the deck which flooded backwards into the cockpit area and we ended up sitting in pools of it; it was at about this time that I realised my waterproof suit wasn't waterproof any more - not nice. Cold, wet, and under pressure to get to a safe haven at a place called Barbate and out of the storm I tried a different tactic and pointed the boat straight into the storm to try and make some headway. We managed some reasonable progress and with an extra 500 revs on the engine we got the speed over ground up to the 4 knot mark. All we had to do now was avoid the notorious shallows of the Cape Trafalgar, keep away from a magnetic anomaly area in the middle of the sea, and by-pass the tunny fishing nets that stretched for miles and some of which were marked on the navigation charts. By six in the morning, having been up all night wrestling with the elements, I finally came off watch. Soaked to the skin, I stripped everything off and crawled into my sleeping bag, put my head on the pillow and remember nothing for the next two hours when I was woken up to drop the sails and prepare to enter the harbour. Half an hour later, we were tied up at the fuel dock replenishing the diesel in the tanks and shortly thereafter we were berthed in the marina.

First things first, all the oilskins were hung out to dry, the boat hatches opened to dry out the sodden interior and it was off to the marina heads to do what no-one can do for you. We went to the cafe for breakfast and I got chatting to some locals about the weather. Sticky was hell bent on resuming our journey to Gib, but after talking to the locals who said 'no chance of making Gibraltar before Sunday', we persuaded him to change his plans and stay in port. Three of the crew (me included) had flights booked for departure or rendezvous with friends, and so we decided we would jump ship and make our way by taxi to Gib. In the meantime, Sticky had unilaterally taken himself off to Gib in his own taxi to collect a replacement electric control panel for fitting on the boat. This really hacked us off - one thoughtless action and three crew members backs were up. It would have been a simple move to get a taxi and share it, instead of which we had to pay for a separate one and share the cost. Sadly, this left a bitter taste in the mouth and could very easily been avoided with a little consideration for the crew members. As it is, I now have a spare day tomorrow to go and explore Gibraltar. I think I'll go up the rock and see my ancestors (the apes if you hadn't guessed!), explore the tunnels etcetera. Early night tonight - absolutely knackered.