Thoughtless but lucky: don’t panic and sail a catamaran
As it was told on my last post, we left our failed sailing trip and, in less than a minute, we got in contact with a brand new, luxury catamaran, whose owner summoned us two days later in a nearby city with the aim of taking his boat to Majorca island, in the Mediterranean Sea, in five days. Happily, but with great surprise, we learned that we’d have to pay for absolutely nothing on this trip.
Estimated route from A Coruña to Palma de Mallorca, by Sea Route Finder.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GETTING A GOOD SKIPPER
During those two days, the boat’s owner had managed to hire a professional skipper, whom we met the day before we departed. He had spent a whole day checking everything about the catamaran, and another day reading all the instruction books available. About this man, whom I’ll call Skipper, I will just say, to protect his privacy, that he was sweet, professional, polite, thankful, and the best teacher we could have hoped for. He protected us, instructed us, always asked please, and generally cared about our well-being. The sea is always unsafe and a volunteer’s unique role is to help, not to be held responsible for somebody else’s boat, so never expect less than this.
EVERYTHING SEEMS TOO PERFECT
We left port on a sunny and almost windless summer morning, eastwards, excited about the amazing kitchen, the fridge so full of great food, the beds, the cabins, the toilets, the control panels, the wide deck, the raft, the dinghy, the life jackets, and the harnesses. We had everything we’d ever need. The air and the sea were soft as a dream, Skipper was thrilled and happy to answer all our questions, and, wonder of wonders, he had decided we’d be in charge of the day watch (wake me up if you see anything in the radar and you’ll make me happy, you don’t have to make any decisions), because the night watch was too tricky and he didn’t know us. We couldn’t believe we were allowed to sleep. We easily trimmed the main sail, and I sat the whole day at my new official watch point, a narrow seat on the prow of the starboard hull, my legs hanging a meter over the sea, the dolphins swimming and dodging and jumping and splashing under my feet.
Mular dolphins swam along us.
I appointed myself as boat cook in defiance of my seasickness and some general physical laws that make hot oil incompatible with waves over half a meter, and it was quite entertaining for everybody. I’m proud to say I cooked a nice paella while approaching the Coast of Death, near Finisterre.
The coast of Finisterre on the horizon.
We told Skipper that this area was quite popular due to all those shipwrecks, but he said we were sufficiently far from the land. The wind was quite weak but it helped the engines, so we left the main sail up and went to bed.
FINISTERRE: COSTA DA MORTE
Just to be awaken two hours later by Skipper: hey, guys, I don’t want you to panic, but get your life jackets and harnesses on and come up right now. So, what happened was more or less as follows: we were in front of Finisterre, wonderful weather, soft wind, what a splendid night, shipwrecks hahaha, when the wind suddenly stopped for a few seconds, only to come back with great power and blow our little boat landward. At this time I need to explain that our catamaran wasn’t a slim, swift, flat, race catamaran, but a cubic house on skis with a huge sail wide open on the roof. It was dragging us. The engines weren’t strong enough and we were twenty minutes from the rocks. Skipper had taken my life jacket, thank you very much. I know, we should have pulled the sail down before going to bed. I know, an experienced crew would have been able to control the boat as it was. Well, now I know that Skipper knew nothing about sails and that the boat owner had told him that we were some kind of educated experts, not just volunteers. Luckily, my friend was able to get the sail almost all the way down. Skipper saved the boat from the rocks, and we could sleep a couple of hours more before the sun rose and our day watch began.
I remember we spent seven days on the sea, without touching land, but days melt and mix in my memories. My fault, I should have used my notebook. It was mostly about constantly checking the radar, setting the size, speed and direction of every little dot before we could spot the cargo ships on the horizon, and watching the water to avoid the buoys, trash, and anything that wouldn’t send a radar sign but could harm our boat. Waves grew, bigger and bigger, and dolphins swam with us, as we got closer to Lisbon.
A cargo ship on the horizon.
More mular dolphins, a big group this time.
SINTRA (LISBON): A LONG BLACKOUT
We had a long blackout that night. It wasn’t the first one. The generator had some problem at night we didn’t know how to solve, but it was the worst and no doubt. We were at the emergency area in between the entrance and exit paths to Sintra harbor, along which giant cargo ships were navigating. The weather wasn’t too bad, just a force 5 or 6, but the helm was electrically controlled, therefore useless, and the main sail was up again, so the wind was pushing us and we were feeling the waves at their worst. We could see the deck lights of the cargos surrounding us. We knew they were sailing at 20-25 knots and that they were 5 miles from us, so, if we got in their path, we would be crashing in less than 15 minutes. Once again, getting the sail down was the priority, and Skipper was getting nervous, which I deduced from his emphatic swearing, and the alarm didn’t help either. At that very moment, half asleep, harnessed to the mast, the catamaran falling from waves and hitting the surface of the water more strongly than it was built for, cargo lights all around us and the milky way shining over our heads, we realized something quite important at that moment: our boat was perfect to shoot a porn flick at a Caribbean island, but not quite so to navigate in the open sea. It was impossible to point the prow windward, because of the blackout and the less than aerodynamic shape of the boat (and because of our lack of experience, what can I say). The boom was bouncing too hard and threatening to crash the protective canopy of our control station. At the same time, the boom was too high and inaccessible, and the last two meters were hanging over the water, way past the stern. For a long half an hour, cold, tired and in the darkness, I tried to climb the mast to reach the sail and pull it down, but it was too full of wind, too tense. My friend was trying to do the same, just at the rear end of the boom. We definitely weren’t doing it the right way. Meanwhile, Skipper kept shouting us, get the fucking sail down and don’t fall, if you go to the water I’ll never find you. In the middle of that mess, my friend was trying to climb the boom (quite a great deed, considering the circumstances). I told Skipper there was no way to get it down, and I suggested a Mayday, which he refused, what makes me think we weren’t in as great a danger as he wanted us to believe. So, I climbed to my friend’s shoulders, climbed to the mast, hooked the sail with a boathook and pulled it down with all the weight of my body (I’m a strongly built lady, thank you Nature). Then, my friend and I tied the sail as tightly as we could with some spare lines, and let Skipper do his job.
I went to bed to get some rest before my next watch at dawn, so my friend had to tell me later what happened next: about one hour after we tied the main sail, a little motorboat came by our side with red and blue lights on. The waves and the wind made the maneuver quite dangerous. First they thought it was the coastguard, but they soon realized the boat didn’t have the deck lights on, that it didn’t show on the radar, and that it was painted in dark colors. The crew of that motorboat didn’t try to communicate with us; they just kept chasing us and blocking our way, so that we couldn’t get into calmer coastal waters. Until, fortunately, the waves or their intention took them away. Skipper told him that, sometimes, sailors find something more precious than fishes in the sea, and they prefer to protect it personally rather than marking it with a GPS buoy. Or, maybe, they were pirates. The child inside me already decided the second option is the right one. I hope you understand.
A NEW MORNING, A NEW SEA
I woke up before dawn and saw the sun rise in the sea for the first time. I saved it for myself. We had already left the continental shelf behind, and the waves had turned into slow, majestic hills that pushed us relentlessly southwards. It was so big, just so big. It made my chest wider and filled it with wind and light and laughter like bubbles and tons of dark, shiny water. The boat cracked and squeaked, the protective canopy was broken, the main sail badly tied up, its battens out of place; we decided we’d rely on the engines from that moment on. No more sails for us.
Pushed by the waves the boat ran unbelievably fast. In 24 hours we were turning the southwestern corner of Portugal. I kept the day watch, and then again the night watch. After the last few days, it was too much. I was so tired. The only things I could focus on were to keep myself always clipped to something and to look at the radar, then at the horizon, then at my back (boats can hit you in the aft too, never forget it), then back to the radar. I went to bed in the morning. Waves hit us on the port side, and I needed to grab the bulkhead to stop rolling, but I slept, yes I did, and four hours later the radio and my two men shouting woke me up. Protected by the southern coast of Portugal, we had reached some calm waters, and Skipper had decided that we needed some fun and a bit of hygiene. After six days without a shower, it was perfectly understandable, and the only reason why I jumped into the freezing-cold-full-of-monsters water was my awareness of my own smell. It was glorious.
That bath was the beginning of the end. We were too tired, and Skipper took notice. He had remained watchful throughout the journey to check our reactions to the absence of land in the horizon. He could see we were losing heart, and he wouldn’t accept it. That night he told us: I can’t see my crew like this, but don’t worry, because we’re going to port. Do you see those lights in the horizon? We’ll be there in two hours. Tomorrow you’ll sleep in a harbor.
We stepped into the land at a little city on the border between Portugal and Spain. We were short of food and fuel, and less than halfway to our destination. The journey ahead was tricky, and Skipper told us the boat wouldn’t be able to take another storm. Besides, there were some other unclear issues, which I shall not discuss for lack of evidence. In summary, I am no coward, but I am not stupid either. You can love your skipper but still wish to live a long and fruitful live, so we said good luck, Skipper, take care of yourself, and don’t forget to sleep. And after an interesting farewell party we left, with our hearts full of the joy of survivors and victors, perhaps unjustifiably so, but who cares.
Estimated final route from A Coruña to Albufeira, by Sea Route Finder.
Later we learned that Skipper had finished the journey in the commendable time of two weeks, plus the week he spent with us. How I admire the man.
If you want to see more pictures, click here.