Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Adventures with Onawind Blue

The end of September loomed and my camping/cruising plans looked doomed. The cove, El Waikiki, would remain unexplored until next year. But despite the first signs of resignation I maintained, as always, an interested eye on the weather forecasts.

The Mestral had returned. Boisterous as ever after its summer break, it brought flurries of leaves, a change of air temperature and left no doubt that autumn had arrived. And after the Mestral easterlies threatened with their big seas, low clouds and general malevolence towards small boats.

But there was a weather window. Between Friday lunchtime and Sunday morning south, south westerlies were on the cards. Perfect for cruising down the coast. But on Friday night friends were coming for dinner. I didn’t feel justified in postponing the engagement, though Lord knows I’ve scuppered enough family plans for the sake of windsurfing. I looked ruefully at the weather forecast and went back to finishing off the repairs in the workshop. Onawind Blue wouldn’t have been ready anyway so what was the point in getting flustered.

Friday lunchtime the Mestral breathed its last and a gentle on-shore breeze set up from the south right on cue. Then my friend called canceling dinner. I was free to go. The only problem was OB—the epoxy was under 24 hours old on the rudder and it still needed varnish. But what the hell, this was probably my last chance and, in a whirlwind state of mind, I prepared the boat and sorted out my gear.

I called my friend Pep, arranged to meet for the night at El Waikiki and dragged a loaded Onawind Blue down to the water’s edge at 5.30pm. It was late, only three hours of daylight left but the wind had gone more southerly and had strengthened. I pushed out into perfect conditions—I could get a tad offshore and then reach all the way there. Three hours should have been enough.

I hoisted the sails, anxious to play with OB’s new rig. I sheeted in the main as for a close reach, then adjusted the sheeting angle on the mizzen so that as the bows started to drop away to leeward the mizzen would fill and force them back up to weather. This worked well and the smaller rudder felt much lighter but did I even need to touch it? The boat was balanced but when I let go of the tiller the latent rudder movements interfered with the work of the sails and we came head to wind. I got back on track, tied the rudder off amidships and settled back to see what would happen. The bows paid off, the mizzen caught the wind, we turned to windward, then the mizzen lost power and the bows paid off again. Onawind Blue was sailing herself. I tweaked the sheeting angles of both sails so that she sailed in a straight line and sat back in the boat, ecstatic to be freed from the tiller.

I baled the water that we’d shipped while launching and tidied up. I knotted the end of the mizzen sheet to my life jacket, reckoning that if I fell out of the boat the mizzen would sheet-in and bring us head to wind, then I opened a celebratory beer. This was the life—my boat bowling along on automatic pilot while I sipped a cold one and admired the view.

But that wasn’t exactly the view that I expected to be admiring; I should have been looking at the coast but the sea spread before me. OB’s sails were trimmed to sail close-hauled. We seemed to be bearing away but we obviously weren’t. No, it was the wind that had shifted, moving west and coming foul.

Now it would be a long slog to windward. For a moment I thought about turning back but I felt committed, ready for adventure and prepared to revise my plans depending on the weather, but that didn’t include going home. I made myself snug in the bottom of the boat for the evening was cold and continued out to sea.

I went further offshore than I’ve ever been, far enough to raise Montserrat—a mountain to the northwest, 1200 metres high, 60 km inland and Mont Caro at 1500 metres high and 120km southwest. Then I tacked and came on course for El Waikiki.

We had the lowering sun on our bows and an hour and a half of daylight. Punching over the waves I moved my cosy nest forward. My weight up front evened up the boat for working to windward or, perhaps more to the point, Onawind Blue rode more comfortably through the waves, slamming and jarring far less even if it did mean an occasional earful of water. I’d discovered another advantage of letting OB sail herself, when tied to the tiller I could never get far enough forward to trim the boat on a windward course.

As night crept up from the east I reviewed my position. Still a long way off shore—too far to reach anywhere before darkness I scrapped the El Waikiki plan (the easing wind put it at least an hour an a half away) and looked at the nearest port, its entrance lights winking invitingly half an hour downwind.

While I lowered the mainsail and lashed a light to the peak I thought about going to the port. I’ve had minimal dealings with the one of the harbour officals and consider him a first class prat—when I’d asked him where I could moor OB should I happen to come in to spend money in the restaurants or chandlers he told me that I wouldn’t be allowed access without ‘mechanical propulsion’. I railed at this seemingly ridiculous response and the abyss between two people worlds apart became glaringly apparent—I’d have to be in a real fix before I pulled in there. I hoisted the sail and looked west. There, 45º off my starboard bow shone my old friend and landmark Tamarit castle gleaming under spotlights. I adjusted my course and made for it.

Night crowded around us and I looked up at our diminutive light drawing tight ovals on the starry sky. The first slice of moon rose behind us, unrecognizable in a deep red guise. I blurted, ‘What the hell is that?’ before reason gained a footing and the moon rose higher revealing its curves and flecking the inky water, that slapped and gurgled down OB’s sides, with orange. This was beauty, all the more piercing for being threaded with cold and fear.

I turned my gaze to our destination. Landing in the dark wouldn’t be easy, I’d never landed at Tamarit before but I’ve been to the little beach by land and looked at it from the sea on two occasions. The cove is small but protected from the southwest by a rocky outcrop surrounded by large flat rocks just below the surface. The water is deep by the rocks and gets shallower towards the castle on the other side. Well at least that was the score when I was last there. With sands shifting all the time I could expect anything.

I called Pep and told him I was making for Tamarit but would wait offshore for him. When I saw his torchlight on the beach I would head in and he could help land OB—she was noticeably heavier with my gear aboard and if the beach was steep or I got a wave over the stern it would be a challenge to get her high and dry single-handed.

Remembering a buoy just off the rocks I picked a point in the night and headed towards it giving the odd pull on the oars to help us on the dying breeze. Soon I could hear the waves and make out the rocks by the light from the illuminated castle. As I came closer I nervously scanned the black water for the buoy. Too close to the rocks for comfort I was about to turn around when it appeared right on the bow. I had a rope prepared and fumbled to drop a bight over the buoy as it bumped down our starboard side and fell astern. I sheeted in the mizzen and rowed us round on to the other tack then tried again. I eventually lassoed the buoy on my fifth attempt feeling not a little exasperated with my clumsiness. Seeing no light on the beach I stowed the sails and prepared the boat for landing.

A light flashed by the rocks, I flashed back, (this was straight out of Arthur Ransome) untied and then rowed in, keeping to the deep channel. Pep met me at the water’s edge and we pulled OB ashore then put her on the fenders and rolled her to the back of the cove by a little cave that would form part of our shelter, elation apparent in my speech and in my every movement.

Under an improvised boat tent we supped on Catalan pan con tomate, Spanish omelette, ham, cheese and red wine, then yarned over whisky and chocolate until too fuddled to get into our sleeping bags without bringing in heaps of sand.

I slept comfortably but woke suddenly to the sound of thunder. It was 6am, dark and cloudy. I saw no lightning but heard the thunder again. And again. No, that wasn’t thunder, but waves—large ones bashing into the hollows under the rocks with such force that they shook the beach. And that other noise? Oh, that was the rain. I put my head under the pillow and tried to make my mind go blank.

But my mind, like a train on tracks, was reviewing the options. Waves like these came from the east, the fore runners of the weather expected for Sunday. The predicted weather pattern had jumped forwards 24 hours. There would be no sunny Saturday with southwesterly force threes. Tamarit is unprotected from the east and the pounding waves brought urgency to my thoughts. Could I leave the boat here until the easterlies passed? No, I couldn’t bear to. Maybe I could launch and, if the weather became adverse, slip into the port, then try and borrow a road trailer and a towing vehicle and get her home that way? No, that was too complicated for me.

I woke Pep; a large puddle accumulating in the tarpaulin above his head threatened him with a wet awakening. I asked if he could hear the thunder, he said yes, I said, ‘That’s the waves.’ He looked worried. The plan had been to sail back together but I excused him. He was far from easy about me setting off into dubious conditions and I must say that my stomach was behaving in a way that I associate with my youth—like when I was due for a beating from the headmaster. Bricking it, basically.

We ate breakfast and talked through the options again but I was decided—if there was wind coming I wanted to get away long before it arrived. We tidied up, rolled OB to the water and then I set off into the green and white waves under a murky grey sky.
Outside the waves I set the sails, the east wind was right on the nose and too light to make any headway. It was going to be a long row.
I set off parallel to the coast keeping the wind slightly to port; this kept the sails full and to starboard giving me room to row. Every now and then a large lump of wave passed under us and the dip and splash of the oars was accompanied by the relentless surge and crash from the shore. I didn’t want to think about how I’d land when I got home—at this point it was still a question of if I got home.
The sea became more difficult to handle as the beach gave way to cliffs and the waves were reflected back making a mess of jostling peaks. The wind started to rise and, although this may have been the harbinger of worse weather, at least Onawind Blue gained stability with the sails drawing and I could rest from rowing.

I was nearing the port again. I tried to persuade myself that it might be better to pull in there (I’d had phone calls updating the forecast—rain and thunderstorms but no confirmation of big constant winds) but I couldn’t justify it, especially as a healthy flock of Optimists hurried out, a flurry of sails flashing white over the green sea. I trimmed my main and mizzen and, rather than tying the tiller as I’d done the day before, simply raised the rudder out of the water. I found that I could tack very effectively by rowing round with one oar; I could also forereach and gain a little ground to windward.

I fell in with the Optimist fleet also hacking up wind and had a pleasant sail with them. The sailing instructor buzzed over to me in his RIB to ask what boat I was sailing—the yawl rig is a very unusually one out here, especially on a small boat. ‘What, no rudder?’ he shouted, ‘No, she’s balanced.’ I yelled back.

Leaving the Opi crowd behind I took a beat inshore. I failed to weather the port and had to come about again. We’d covered little ground in the past hour. Above the fading wind I could hear distant rumblings, which I immediately took to be waves, but coming from seaward they could only be thunder. As clouds thickened in the west I took up the oars again and aimed at the eye of the wind. Improvising lewd shanties I rowed hard and watched the weather.

The storm grew rapidly off my starboard quarter, a bruised sky shot through with veins of lightning hanging low over a poisonous green sea and a horizon flecked with white caps.

I’ve sailed in a Mediterranean thunderstorm before, in 42-foot aluminum blue-water cruiser, and the violence of that experience is branded on my memory. To turn back towards the port would be to turn towards the storm so, unable to out run it, I could only slog on and hope the storm would expend its wrath out at sea. I watched two sailing boats on the horizon disappear into the dark smudge and felt for them as the cloud fizzled with lightning. Then the wind dropped completely.

I didn’t want to waste time stowing the sails so sheeted out the main completely knowing the wind could suddenly spring from any direction. The storm was moving fast and passing to starboard. Relieved, I looked back at the port to find that it had disappeared.

A huge grey swathe had erased the western horizon, I could only watch as it raced up behind us with sickening inevitability.

The hail hit like a ton of freezing marbles. The sea, pounded flat by the downpour, boiled. The world closed in about us and noise blotted out thought. The hail turned to icy rain and intensified. It poured off the sails and into the boat, it beat on my face till I was forced to shut my eyes.

‘That’ll teach me to sing.’ I wryly mused. And then it passed.

I watched it go as I baled the boat. The storm had overtaken us and turned inland and the sea, subdued by its beating, rolled gently. Landing would be easier now than it had been all day and I pressed on for home arriving at my stretch of beach 45 minutes later.

I stowed the sails and rowed in judging the waves so as to let the bigger ones roll under us. Arriving at the beach I got one over the stern which half filled Onawind Blue. I had a long job pulling and baling the boat up the shore as successive waves tried to fill her. But I was on dry land; home in time for tea and smiling from ear to ear.


Paul said...

Fantastic stuff Ben. You've done it - well impressed. What a feeling though to get through it. I guess I'll need to get a sail for the kayak, then me and Mark will join you

Ben said...

Hey Pablo, great to hear from you. I've heard of people using open umbrellas to sail downwind in kayaks so maybe that's an option on the ebro.
Hopefully see you sometime.