Cruising

Alone in gale conditions

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I dropped my crew at the fuel dock in Ajaccio, Corsica, thinking it would be only a few moments before I would be able to tie up Eidos, my 32-foot East Orient cutter. Lying just off the dock, I shifted in and out of gear and drifted while waiting for space to open up. Once I was safely tied up I planned to spend the rest of the day cleaning up and fixing things. It was early Sunday morning and I hoped most of the charterboats at the dock would be underway by about noon.

But there was a problem. Even though it was the middle of August, the forecast was calling for westerly winds up to 30 knots and heavy seas. There are not many good harbors on the west coast of Corsica, and I feared the charterers would be hesitant to give up their safe positions and get underway.

We had spent the previous night anchored in Golfe d’Ajaccio, which is 30-60 feet deep and has a weedy bottom. It shoals up suddenly and the 15-foot depth contour, which is the depth I like to anchor in, is close to shore. Since I didn’t have a power windlass I knew I would be at a disadvantage if the wind started to increase. The marina two miles away was my first choice for riding out the approaching gale.

After dropping the crew off, I called the marina at 1000 hours to ask whether they had room for me. They said no, but told me to call back at noon. I saw no point in anchoring and then returning to the marina so I continued to shift the engine from forward to neutral to reverse while keeping clear of the ferries and tour boats in the harbor. Because other sailboats were also waiting for a slip I knew I had to stay close by if I wanted to keep my place in line. When I called at noon I was told to call back again at 1400.

When I heard this I decided to make a quick run back to the anchorage. But I couldn’t find a suitable spot and I knew that if my anchor did drag in that weedy bottom, Eidos would end up ashore, which was only about 100 yards away. When I returned to the harbor, the wind was starting to blow 20 knots and seas were building. Again, I began to circle off the marina while putting the engine in and out of gear. After another hour passed it became clear that the charter boats were going to stay put. Sure enough, when I called the marina at 1400 the answer was short and without emotion: “Le port est complet.” But give us a call back at 1700, they added. Right.

Now desperate, I motored back to the weedy anchorage only to find it was more crowded than ever. Then, just as I shifted into neutral, I heard a snapping sound and the gearshift lever went loose in my hand. The handle was in the right position, but we were still moving forward at idle speed. When I tried to shift into reverse nothing happened.

I knew I was in serious trouble, but I managed to steer the boat into a clear area to assess the situation. I assumed the transmission cable had broken, but in order to fix, and do it safely, I would have to anchor. But with no reverse gear I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get the anchor to dig into the weedy bottom. And if the anchor failed to hold when the wind increased, goodbye Eidos.

I went forward and took off the mainsail cover: I knew I should have done so before getting underway that morning. Eidos was still moving forward; when the cable snapped, the transmission must have been in forward gear.

A stroke of luck, I thought, because now the marina would take mercy on me and perhaps let me tie up alongside someone else. But when I called and explained what had happened all I got was a polite: “Madame, le port est complet.”

That’s when I knew I was out of options, so I headed toward a cove I knew about two miles away. Even though it too was on a lee shore and open to the swell, it was reasonably shallow and had a good sandy bottom. When I arrived there was one other anchored boat but it soon got underway. I felt alone and vulnerable.

I finally found a sheltered spot behind a concrete wall and some rocks. Although it was near buoys marking a channel for the beach boats, I thought that the wind would keep me away from them. When my depthsounder showed 20 feet I shut off the engine, said a prayer, and dropped my 22–pound Bruce. After it caught I slowly let out 40 feet of chain and another 60 feet of nylon rode to give me a scope of about 5:1. I also had a 20–pound CQR with 100 feet of chain and 200 feet of rode, but I chose to set the Bruce because there would be less chain to haul back up by hand if I had to re–anchor.

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