Thursday 4 September 2008

Why I don’t want a bigger boat

I watched as the sailboat’s keel and rudder ground into a large submerged rock. The two children were bawling as the skipper brought the anchor home, started the engine, dropped his stern lines and tried to motor off. But the yacht had stuck fast and each wave lifted it higher. The morning had turned chill, a fast-moving, leaden sky sped over a foam-streaked, shingle coloured sea and the sandwiched air rushed wildly, madly into the cove pushing the boat further onto the rocks. The skipper’s nerves were as taught as guitar strings, he ran forward, ran back, peered over the side, shouted instructions to his harassed wife and jumped overboard.

Up to his waist he stood on the submerged rock and heaved at the listing hull. He screamed orders at his wife at the helm, who in turn screamed at the children to go below. The situation was appalling to behold. From where I stood the man’s position looked dangerous, a large wave could lift the boat and pin him between the hull and the steep wall of rock. A man dived off one of the motorboats and swam to his aid. But to push the boat off from leeward seemed an impossible task. They needed somehow to reset the anchor and use the winch to haul themselves off—that or a tow from a strong boat.

I looked at Alex—he seemed to be thinking the same. I grabbed a length of line from OB’s cockpit while he roused his buddy, the owner of the motor launch.

The three of us piled in and while the owner, Jaume, started the engine Alex raised the anchor and I released the bow line. Jaume put the helm hard down and we span in a tight circle narrowly missing OB’s stern and powered to the other side of the cove. Broadside on to the wind we slowly approached the yacht’s lee. As we touched Alex sprang aboard and took the helm from the woman. She relinquished it gladly and went below where the cries of her children still rang.

The skipper, tendons and veins pulsing in his neck, urged us to push his boat hard, ‘Hard!’ with our bows. He was past caring about damage; any scuff to the topsides would be small compared to the wreckage being wreaked underwater.

Jaume opened the throttle as I held us steady, leaning over the bow and grabbing the yacht’s toe-rail. Water churned at our stern but the yacht held fast. ‘Ram it!’ shouted the skipper. ‘Ram it hard!’ Jaume and I looked at each other. Extreme measures were called for but ramming the boat didn’t appeal. I fastened OB’s length of line to the yacht’s bow cleat and to the launch’s stern. Manoeuvring carefully Jaume worked round to windward of the sailing boat and pointing his craft into the wind’s eye opened the throttle again.

The line taughtened, wringing the water out of its fibres, and the wind whisked the drips away. The launch growled, whipping the water behind us to a maelstrom of foam. The yacht held. The skipper and his helper shifted their positions and in unison we heaved again. A groan came from the yacht’s hull. ‘She’s moving!’ somebody cried. And then, with a long drawn out, grinding snarl she slid off in to deep water. We motored gently forward. Alex carefully held the yacht head to wind while I undid the line, a gust pushed the launch hard onto the sail boat’s bow with a painful crunch of fibres breaking in glass and Jaume engaged full ahead before any worse could happen. The skipper swam from the rocks and boarded his boat via the stern ladder. His helper swam back to the motorboat and Alex dived and swam back to the launch.

We slowly drove back to the quay and tied up then witnessed the skipper paddling a small blow moulded kayak over to the rocks to retrieve his stern lines. ‘Leave the lines.’ Shouted Alex, ‘Come back and get them when it’s calm.’ The skipper scrambled and slithered on the rocks. He’d already cut his feet and shins but he climbed up the steep wall and untied his lines.

I agreed with his decision to regain his gear having myself lost important kit that morning. Increasingly material loss becomes less important, ‘don’t fret you can buy another one’ is true on land, but like ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ that attitude has no place on a small cruiser. I depended on every piece of gear and any loss, especially that of a line, could be a possible step towards disaster.

The sailboat motored out into the fierce wind towards its home base of Port de la Selva just three miles around the corner. Though mercifully short it would be an uncomfortable passage and I felt for that man, his wife and children.

With swell beginning to roll into the open part of the cove, and having seen what could happen if they dragged, the motorboats began to weigh their anchors. The first released its leeward stern line, then brought its windward line aboard as it motored up to its anchor. The boat manoeuvred tidily then headed out into the chop. The second boat however, having retrieved its leeward line couldn’t close sufficiently with the rocks to unhook the windward line. The line had been purpose built with a sturdy bight of chain at the end and this was looped over a stout finger of rock. They called over to where Alex, Jaume and I stood watching, asking if we could help by climbing round the cliffs from the quay to where their line was fixed and so unhook it.

I volunteered and found that the simple favour wasn’t so easily executed. I had to clamber over sharp rocks, dive and swim and climb out of the water up a vertical rock face to release the line then, finding myself stranded on an uncomfortable rock, watch as the large crew motored away. Confused in their relief to be leaving the cove, they waved and shouted their thanks to Alex and Jaume on the quay.

When I had swum back to the cove Alex explained why those sorts of water users didn’t deserve help. Working in the busy port of Palamos he was tired of seeing people behaving as if the status afforded them by boat ownership also endowed them with the right to demand assistance of others. When they had been too lazy or incompetent to secure their tenders or to think of a way of retrieving stern lines in a blow, Alex reckoned, they should suffer the consequences. Many people won’t sail to the north of Cap de Creus being too apprehensive about the conditions they might find, he continued, they think it’s Cape Horn or something. When they do come north of the cape they often get into trouble. It sounded like local pride to me but there were far fewer boats this side of the cape and the weather had shown what it could do to the unwary.

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