Voice of Experience: Alone in Gale Conditions
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.
The Bruce dug in well without my backing down on it, and after an hour of watching the trees ashore I began to relax. It was a bit rolly, but I was well away from the shore and, better yet, the wind wasn’t increasing much. I learned later that the approaching front had stalled, but four days later it did hit the coast with winds of 60 knots. So I was lucky.
When I went below and inspected the transmission cable I saw the wire had frayed apart at the lever and and was too short to be reattached. With no spare and with the wind and waves building in the approaching darkness, I wasn’t going to attempt a repair in the confined space below. I hadn’t eaten all day, and I was very tired. And I felt terribly alone.
I spent a lonely and anxious night, but when the dawn finally came the wind began to drop. An hour later it had dropped so much that the boat started to swing around and the rode began to foul the marker buoys. I reduced the scope and used the engine to try to drag the anchor away from the marked channel. But I quickly saw that since there was no way to shift into neutral, I risked wrapping the rode around the prop. I dropped a stern anchor and tried to kedge the boat away from the marker buoys. But Eidos insisted on swinging back into them.
I finally decided to reanchor, even though there was now little wind to help me set the hook. As I pulled up the rode, it became clear that the anchor had caught on a marker buoy chain. I put on a snorkel and mask and went into the water to get a better look. Sure enough, the Bruce was hooked on the buoy chain. Back aboard, I continued the long chore of retrieving the anchor. Pull more chain, then cleat it off and rest. Repeat…
Nearly an hour later I was exhausted, but I could see the Bruce, with the buoy chain in its fluke, hanging just under the surface of the water. I mustered enough strength to reach over, grab the buoy chain with my hands, and get it clear of the anchor. Somehow I managed to finish hoisting the anchor, and then I reanchored a safe distance from the marker buoys. Or rather, I dropped the anchor and hoped it would dig in on its own.
At noon I heard the marina calling boats on the radio to announce they now had space available. Hooray!
Somehow I got the anchor up one more time and then motored to the harbor. When I finally approached the marina I saw a dock with a lee side that was relatively clear of boats. As I got close, I shut the engine off and hoped I had enough momentum to shoot alongside. But it wasn’t quite enough, so I restarted the engine for just a second. As the boat again lurched forward I turned the engine off; the burst was just enough to let Eidos slide alongside the dock. Finally my ordeal was over and after a very long 24 hours I was once again safe. But there was one more thing I had to do. I had to find and install a new transmission cable.
What I did right:
- I paid close attention to the weather reports and knew strong winds were coming.
- Though I probably waited too long to get an answer from the marina, once I saw that I had to do something I thought carefully about where to go given the expected conditions and the time left.
- I had two more anchors on board in case things really deteriorated.
- Although it wasn’t easy at times, I remained calm and carefully thought out every move.
What I did wrong:
- I didn’t have the main ready to go up at the first sign of trouble.
- When I had to wait two hours before calling back about dock space, I should have dropped one of my lighter anchors near the marina instead of powering around and shifting gears constantly.
- I should have had a power windlass to help manage my heavy ground tackle. It’s now on my list.
- I could have anchored with the engine off and then taken the rode to the stern, restarted the engine, and set the anchor in forward gear. I had done this in the past, but my anxiety prevented me from thinking clearly.
- I didn’t have a good storm anchor. I now have a 35 pound CQR.
Barbara Molin has been cruising and living aboard for the past 13 years in British Columbia, California, Mexico, and the Bahamas. She crossed the Atlantic to Europe in 2004, and has been sailing in the Mediterranean ever since. Eidos is now in Greece