We have now been living and sailing on our boat for almost six months, it has been an interesting transition from life on the land to life on the sea. Being a non-sailor I was always going to make mistakes and learn as we went along. The consequences of getting things wrong on the sea can have serious ramifications. Safety is our first priority starting with going out in the right weather. Recently whilst sailing from Port Rotonda Sardinia Italy to Port Vecchio Corsica France we learnt a few lessons regarding sailing the Mediterranean over a 24 hour window.
Rule # 1. “The Weather Can Change In A Heartbeat”
The standout feature of Mediterranean weather is that it can change so quickly, often to the extreme without warning. What is forecast and what you get are often very different. We were sailing from Sardinia to Corsica, it had started out as a perfect sailing day. Then came what I am calling the Great Wall of White. It was upon us in minutes. The water had become a wild white grey, the wind was moaning, there was thunder, lightning and we were saturated in seconds with torrential rain and hail. It was an unexpected slap, shocking, rude and intense. It came so quickly, from the opposite weather direction, it caught us by surprise. This is sailing in the Mediterranean.
The only hint that bad weather was coming was thunder in the distance that seemed a long way off. (The forecast lied yet again.)
When the wind hit us it was brain shaking, like running into a brick wall. Our boat went from a happy 9 knots to way too fast, I felt out of control. I can’t actually tell you our wind and boat speed, I was too busy reefing to look at the electronic displays. The wake behind the boat was high and long, too fast for safety or fun.
Then it was gone, almost as quickly as it came. It was over in 15 minutes max. What remained, was rain and 30 knot winds, after the previous weather 30 knots is a walk in the park. Prior to the Great Wall, I had been having an awesome time. We had SW winds that started at 15 knots, gradually building to around 22 knots. Our boat was scooting along at 8 to 9 knots in relatively flat water with a sunless sky though still a nice day. It was beautiful sailing.
When it was over I asked the sea “what the hell was that and why?” I was talking to my friend the sea, as you do. The sea wasn’t interested in a chat. The sea has no friends. The good thing is the sea has no enemies either. It is the sea as it always has been and will continue to be long after all of us are gone. The only reality is the consequences of dealing with the sea and how you react on the day.
Rule # 2. “Do I Know Your Mother”
Rule two relates to your expectations of welcome when sailing in French waters, this is a rule I learnt early on, yet had forgotten as we had been sailing elsewhere for the past three months.
The Great Wall of White happened 4 hours prior, bad weather had remained in the form of 30+knot winds, we were keen to get into the Marina that afternoon. Only problem was, the staff were ignoring our phone calls, emails and radio pleas. We decided to forget the Marina staff, pick a spot, and get on with recovering from the day’s dramas.
It was only as we were tightening the ropes in our chosen spot that I noticed our French neighbour directly behind us. If you visualise the human equivalent of “Toad” from Wind in the Willows you’ve got it. He was sitting in a high back deck chair, he had a large head, with thick, snow white hair, his face was shiny with stretched skin as though he had seen too much sun. He appeared to have no neck but he did have a bright pink cravat and he was wearing a fancy looking dark blue evening jacket. The Toad of Port Vecchio was seated only three metres from the back of our boat. I gave him a warm smile and friendly “Bonjour” and he returned me a steely look. To add flourish to his dismissive attitude, he then lit a massive cigar that Tony Soprano would have appreciated, flipped open a large glossy magazine and swiveled in his seat a little to show me his side.
His cigar and our living space are about 3 metres apart. I felt like saying cheers mate, you’re a champion.
Maybe he was worried we might have asked for assistance. He need not have worried, I could see he wasn’t young and had a hacking cough, the only thing missing was the oxygen bottle for breathing. What I did expect was a return smile or wave. Even perhaps a word of welcome. Nope, nothing.
Welcome Back To France
To be fair I need to ease up on poor toad, being away I had forgotten, unless you are a friend or have an established relationship with a person in France, they have no obligation to be friendly. If they are friendly at first, it’s your lucky day.
If you have a problem with this go to Spain or stay in Australia.
Rule # 3. “Stay In The Boat”
Rule three relates to our first man overboard incident. If that sounds well, dramatic, it was me, as I was the one overboard.
We had gotten up at 1 am to leave Port Vecchio early enough to reach our next destination in daylight, Port Macinaggio which is the last port stop at the northern tip of Corsica on the eastern side.
Everything was ready for our departure all I had to do was release the final rope from the starboard stern side. Unfortunately this rope was stuck and not releasing as it should. I was instructed by The Captain to pull the rope in and tie it to the cleat. With two hands, I pulled hard to bring the rope around the cleat. Lucky me the rope came free from shore, unlucky me all my weight was pulling back.
My only thought as I fell into the water was surprise as I heard my own splash. I was registering shock from the cold, realising “bloody hell” I’m in the water. Getting into the water was easy, getting out was tricky. I’m in full wet weather gear and the Captain is a little busy steering a now completely free boat.
Our French neighbour (the one in the sailing boat on our port side, not Mr Toad) rushed out to rescue me but there was no way he could pull me up. I politely informed the Captain I needed the stairs and it was his duty to rescue me by lowering them. When back on the boat we just looked at one another for a quiet moment, then started giggling like teenagers. We both saw the funny side of the moment. The French couple in comparison looked at us both as if we were mad. They left us in peace after we told them how grateful we were for their help and apologised for waking them.
Does It Count As MOB?
Technically speaking we hadn’t left the harbour, we were in the process of leaving so from this point on, I am going to call it a training exercise to retain some dignity. Lesson learned, stay on the boat. This means holding onto the boat when standing on the back step even if pulling a rope.
Lesson learned because MOB is usually a very grave event. It could have it’s own acronym STBD – Soon To Be Dead.
Rule # 4. “Fear Is Part Of Learning”
When learning a new skill, it takes time to become proficient, fear is a natural part of the process when learning to live in harmony with the sea. We moved off from our MOB training, only to face my fears head on.
At first I was uneasy. The weather was going from bad to worse, we were just out of the harbour.
Then the first sudden powerful wind patterns hit us.
The Captain eased the main sheets right off to take power out of the main sail. Next we brought in the genoa (front sail) as quickly as we could, our third action was to put two reefs in the main. At one point after taking power out of the main we were still going 14.6 knots. If you are not a boating person this is fast, way too fast for a 42 foot sailing vessel in the dark.
This time I was scared. Unlike the day before, I was scared freaking shitless. My heart was pounding, my mouth dry and I was experiencing pure pulsing, racing terror for the first time in my life.
Maybe it was the dark, maybe it was lack of sleep, maybe it was the falling in the water earlier in the morning. I was truly afraid that we were in trouble. I was conscious that an overpowered catamaran is at risk of capsizing when the power in the sails is too great. The wind was directly on our side, I kept thinking is she leaning over? or is the wind having such force on one side compared to the other?
I never got my answer and maybe that was a good thing.
As a form of coping throughout the drama I made my vision, “tunnel and short sighted” If I focused on each task within close range it was easier to stay effective and suppress the panic I felt. Looking to the side or the back of the boat showed the evidence of the speed, this was too confronting. Once the reefs were in, tidying and coiling the ropes was similar to taking a valium, it slowed my breathing, my heart stopped racing and I felt more in control. The Captain offered to help, I insisted “I would do it” he didn’t realise order was my recovery drug.
If I was scared shitless how was the Captain doing?
He was being his same old self as always, he was happy sailing. The only noticeable change was he brought his loud PE teacher’s voice to the occasion.
You Have Plenty Of Time To Think
Unlike a train crash, sailing gives you luxury to really get into the groove of the event or horror, whichever it may be. I had to sensor my head talk, to make sure I remained calm, so the fear didn’t overwhelm me. One moment I was on the edge of panic.
Hearing “Security, Security, Gale Warning” every 30 minutes across the radio was little comfort and I felt alone. None of this pre dawn sail was sexy or fun. It was always going to be a long day, I felt like it was turning into an endurance marathon.
I have long ago sacrificed my right to complain.
Later in the day there was a small window of calm sunny weather. The first sun we had experienced in days, we sat together on the helm seat in silence. It was then I shed a few silent tears. I was processing feeling how frightened I was. It feels good to share this moment, to remind myself that it was real, that it was big, I had no control over the process, only the outcome. Signing up to the sea means there will be times of fear, comfort is a luxury not to be taken for granted.
My tears allowed the fear to move across me so I could move on. Pain and fear slip away from me quickly. Like having a fuse, I usually short circuit the uncomfortable. On this day it was a whole lot of shitty moments that felt grinding. For the first 5 hours sailing I was cold, wet and scared. I needed a reality check, that the concept of being in control on the sea, is a flimsy notion, whereas training and preparation are solid dependables.
Sunrise. This too is a dependable and makes you feel better about the sea.
It’s ok to be frightened, it is part of the learning process, next time it will be easier.
Rule # Five “Only Moor When Safe To Do So”
By days end I had aching muscles, probably from trying to climb out of the water but also from tension. Today I couldn’t trust the sea or the weather. No sooner had I thought the winds had gone, than they roared back with vengeance. The process repeated on and off for the 16 hours it took to get to our destination.
The final three hours was a slog. The forty knot winds had won. We gave up, with 10 nautical miles to go, I said to the Captain forget adjusting the sails, lets pull up sticks and pull that sucker down. Getting into the Marina with 40 plus knot winds with no one to meet us nearly brought us undone. I had pre called earlier in the day about 4 nautical miles out, they knew we were coming. When we got into harbour we turned around and went back out again. It was dangerous to be inside the harbour without assistance. Eventually two men came out and it took all their strength to help haul in our girl.
Rule # Six “You Have To Trust The Captain”
The success of the sail for any vessel depends much upon the Captain.
My Captain by nature is a solid type, he gives definition to the word dependable. He loves to crack a “dad joke” even now after all these years, though they are awful they can still give me a laugh. He’s a little bit scruffy but it’s more about being comfortable within. As a sailor he tends to be cautious and careful, he is attentive to the conditions around him. On this sail he was comfortable whereas I was not. It’s a good thing his stress triggers are different to mine.
I was paying close attention to his reactions.
He was true to form.
He was calm, he appeared to do the right thing and de-power the sails quickly, he even found humour to help me through. He was just doing the business of sailing. My Captain was training me to cope and handle the weather conditions and teach me that out boat can handle the conditions.
Rule # Seven “If the Ducks Are Leaving So Should You”
Over the days of travel we had the ocean pretty much to ourselves (minus sea elephants/container ships which don’t count). We kept wondering where all the sailing boats were. Marinas were also empty for the most part, very little activity with most boats stripped down for winter. What did the locals know that we didn’t. I also kept seeing V’s of ducks heading in the opposite direction to our boat.
We are leaving the sunshine of Tunisia for the winds of the Gulf of Lion France as we have boat issues. Repair is the only option.
I now know with certainty that the ducks are onto something. We were heading in the wrong direction and into the wrong weather pattern. Lesson seven has been learned, next winter I promise to be nearer to the equator.
Rule # Eight “Some Days Are Diamonds Some Are Just Shit”
Before leaving home, I knew the pictures of cruising vessels in the glossy magazines couldn’t be so perfect, life just isn’t like that. I always knew there was much to learn, the risks greater than living comfortably in our mortgage free home with comfortable jobs. It was in the middle of it all, in the dark, with the wind howling around us, with all my uncertainties and fears, I wondered if I had made a mistake. There were minutes in the dark where I would have swapped for my old life in a heartbeat.
Then I thought, this is just another rule by which we need to live. Shit happens. The 24 hour window of sailing was just one of the crappy days, there are many awesome, wondrous moments, it’s up to us to remain safe throughout the good the bad and the ugly.
PS The next day we spent the entire day cleaning and scrubbing the boat inside and out. Maybe I am not the only one who gains control with order.