Sunday 23 March 2008

Cape Salou 2. OB and the tankers

The weather forecast was not perfect; the weather pages were hedging their bets predicting everything. I had a little over 24 hours to get ready for my trip to Crab Cove and a lot to do. Most of this involved kit choices. Putting safety first I organised everything I considered absolutely necessary. The anchor, the boat-length of chain plus twenty metres of rode, the drogue with 30 metres of line, the life jacket and whistle, the signal mirror, the flares, spare lines, spare batteries for the GPS and navigation light, torch, spare lighters, spare mobile phone, safety knife, bailers, thermal blanket, sailing clothes, gloves, hats, compass, watch, chart and emergency food and water. I would have liked a hand held VHF too, maybe next time.

I may appear somewhat exaggerated in my choice of gear, I was, after all, merely going for a jaunt down the coast. But I think that while it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality the prudent sailor should set his own limit on what he considers a safe minimum. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with less and I wanted to leave as little as possible to luck.

Then I added the camping gear. Mattress, sleeping bag, boat tent, dry clothes and cooking kit. Then came food and drink, lunch, dinner, breakfast and lunch plus fruit and muesli bars for snacks.

The result was a very heavy boat. The only items I could reasonably have left behind were the beer and wine. But I couldn’t do that for the sake of civilised living.

I didn’t sleep well, too excited to go deeper than a light REM. After a large breakfast I said my good byes and wheeled OB down to the water.

Unhygenix, who regular readers may remember from the building days (he loved my bench), was down by the sea having an illicit smoke. He came over for a chat and when I told him where I was going he asked if I wouldn’t be better off with an engine rather than those two thin ‘levers’. I explained that I felt the oars and the sails were sufficient. Then pointing to my fenders he said that at least I was taking oxygen with me.

None of us can claim never to have committed a lubberly error and with patience I detailed the fenders’ uses but then, before the conversation became too surreal, I pushed out into the small waves and light wind, which had turned foul while I’d been talking.

Unhygenix looked on as I sailed away. I saw him flick his cigarette away and turn for home. Then I trimmed the boat to pinch and started to row-sail. I slogged a mile offshore before turning south, I continued rowing for an hour reckoning it would be a long, long day if the weather didn’t change and then it did. The wind died completely. I sat wallowing while I drank some water and ate an apple. I had a scuttlebutt of sorts—a 5 litre container of water lashed to the after end of the centreboard trunk. I’d drilled a hole in the lid and inserted a long plastic tube. This worked like a sort of Camelbak drinking system allowing me to take plenty of short sips rather than opening and closing hatches and rummaging for bottles, I just had to be careful not to siphon all my valuable drinking water into the bilges.

I started rowing again. Soon a fair breeze roused itself from the south-east and I breathed relief as we properly got under way in the right direction. I passed Torredembarra and Altafulla, then Tamarit cove where I spent a night at the end of September. It had seemed so far away and now I was charging past at three knots well on the way to Waikiki beach, which had been out of reach back then. Before I got there however, the wind strengthened and turned more southerly again. I sheeted in and beat out to sea. The wind continued to rise steadying at the bottom end of a force four. This is generally the territory in which I feel more comfortable with a reef but now I unshipped the oars and secured them lengthways to the thwarts. I found that by wedging my legs under the lashed oars and hanging a couple of buttocks over the gunnel I could effectively maintain trim without having to shorten sail and OB sailed comfortably on heaving the occasional hunk of sparkling wave over her shoulder and into my face, playful girl that she is.

I’d securely tied the mizzen sheet to a loop of webbing on my life jacket, knowing that if I fell overboard I’d sheet in the mizzen and the boat would shoot up to windward. Although I didn’t write about it, I tried this technique during the summer purposely falling overboard to check that it worked.

Something else I haven’t mentioned is the line steering set up. Lines now run back to blocks on the rudder yoke allowing me to steer from anywhere on the boat. When all’s balanced I can secure the line using clam cleats and leave OB to sail herself while I trim, bail or lounge.

But for now it was trim, trim, trim. After tacking I found that the waves were growing and that we were sailing broadside to them. We had a couple of close calls, as two foot breaking waves hit a boat with a four foot beam side on, before I got wise to the necessary technique. Keeping an eye to windward I turned OB sharply to weather whenever a breaking wave threatened. A rapid pull on the steering line brought us back on course before we stalled.

Now we were among the tankers waiting off Tarragona port. Luckily they were all stationary and we tacked between their great hulks. The chart cites a dangerous wreck in the vicinity of the harbour and I wondered if it was one of these ships down there rusting in the deep.

We were nearing the cape and the wind was changing again turning westerly and becoming fair. But the seas were becoming more difficult. Whether due to currents coming round the headland or because of the shifting winds I didn’t know.

Waves came from all directions and peaks formed and foamed around us. The sea was as spiky as the top of a lemon meringue pie and OB didn’t take kindly to it. She slammed and pounded and occasionally jarred to a halt. A few times she nosedived off a peak and while I can’t claim to have shipped a green sea I did get a long look down into green waters as OB’s bows plunged. We took two waves in succession over the front and began to ride low due to the weight of water in the cockpit. I bailed energetically easing the sheets to slow us.

The wind died again and I took up the oars. We’d been sailing for seven hours and suddenly our destination seemed further away than ever. I’d sailed closer to the favourable wind than necessary hoping to be able to run round the cape but that point of sail had taken us further offshore. Now a two-mile row through difficult seas seemed more than I could manage and I looked for alternatives.

Tarragona’s large fishing fleet were returning and due to haste or disregard they restrained from changing course to avoid me until the last minute. On one occasion, lacking the iron nerves necessary to play chicken with steel boats, it was me that took avoiding action, untidily sailing a clumsy circle I indeed resembled a panicked bird. Large, unfriendly wakes added a new dimension to the rough water. We were a very small rowboat in an uncomfortable sea. I was tired and cold from the many hours spent wet in the wind.

But the alternative, a beach on the north of the cape was ugly and seemed a cop out and once I’d started rowing I found new strength.

All these mornings out pulling long strokes in all kinds of weather paid off now. It appeared that I had learnt to row. Without thinking about it I pulled hard when I could and let up as we rose on the waves so as not to slam. I adjusted the strokes instinctively and could let my mind wander. I have built up the required muscles and rowing has become as natural as walking and is even more pleasurable for it.

I rowed for an hour and little by little the cape drew near. A quarter of a mile off the lighthouse an easterly began to blow, no doubt part of the weather system that was bringing clouds crowding to the north. I stowed the oars and we sailed out of the rough water and round the cape, Crab Cove opening up welcomingly before us.

There were a few tourists milling on the cliff tops and many took the opportunity to photograph Onawind Blue as, now in the lee of the headland, she coasted into the cove.

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