High drama, everything that can go wrong will go wrong

posted 19 May 2015, 00:30 by Dominic Thwaites   [ updated 19 May 2015, 01:37 ]
Early this morning from 4:45am to 6:15am I experienced an intense sequence of mishaps.

Morris, who skippers a 33 foot yacht, SERENE, was berthed next to me at Stromness and we both thought the conditions were good enough to make a clean break of the north coast to head west for 70 miles to the west coast.

Tides are fierce around the Orkneys and we had to be out at least by 5:30am. But now that the winds were up, I thought getting out before 5am was also not good due to potentially nasty sea conditions (overfalls). Morris was keen to make a start and he was off by 4:30.

I left at 4:45 and nosed my way into Hoy Sound to see how things looked. They looked nasty and I went back in. I had asked Morris to call me on the VHF if it was bad. I called him. I got a brief response, but then he was obviously busy. Very busy as it turns out as eventually he put in a quick call to say conditions were very nasty.

Poor Morris; I hung back until 5:20 or so and then things looked a little better (the tide was going slack). So I went full throttle and sails to get out of Hoy Mouth as fast as I could before the tide changed and dragged me back in again! Indeed, it was roughish but no that bad.

Then things started to go wrong. I noticed my engine exhaust was smoky and then smoke started coming out of the engine compartment! Action stations! Engine off. At first I feared a fire, but with the engine off the smoke subsided. OK, so no engine.

By now the wind was good and strong and I was doing 6 knots out of Hoy Mouth. I gave myself time to think about whether to turn back or simply sail the whole way and manage without the engine at the other end (I knew I'd have winds for the duration). Either way, I'm going to have to get the boat back into harbour without an engine. I was yet to make my decision when another thing happened that made it for me. My rudder broke! I have two rudders and the link to one of them snapped. The other still worked. If I had no rudders it would have been a Mayday call to the coast guard for immediate rescue. But with one I still had control. Enough at least.

As soon as the rudder broke I turned round and I was heading back. The tide was slack, the wind was more with me and so sailing back was actually quite doable. I had been trying previously to call the Coastguard to let them know of my passage plan, but reception was very bad. Neither of us could reliably keep contact. I called them again to say that a) my engine is out b) one rudder is broke and c) I'm OK but heading back.

They got some of that and asked for my position which I gave them. Don't know if they heard me.

In order to get back to the marina I had to turn left soon and that was into the wind. That meant tacking up the entrance to Stromness, tacking past the narrow bit of water to the pontoons between the ferries and, last but by no means least, sailing onto a pontoon. The wind was getting up.

If I'm honest, I've always wanted to try sailing onto a pontoon but clearly this is highly inadvisable and frowned upon. Now I had my excuse! Still, had to get there first. I got back OK to the channel into Stromness and started tacking.

I discovered that, with only one rudder, this is rather tricky. If you over steer the turn it's difficult to get back on course. And with the now frequent wind gusts, the boat would round up into the wind easily and my one rudder was not enough to stop it. So I had to do this tacking with extreme care and precision.

Then I got distracted. I was coming up to the side of the channel and a tack was imminent when I noticed a large black buoy some 20 meters away to the left. Funny I thought, don't remember a black buoy and, come to think of it, what IS a black buoy? Then the buoy began to sink. Strewth I thought, what on earth is going on? Then it became clear. Two black buoys re-appeared and they were the ENORMOUS dorsal fins of two whales. OMG. What's more I had to tack. Which would turn the boat straight towards them. Either that or go aground. I tacked. I must have gone straight over those beauties as I felt the boat judder a few seconds later.

Now in normal circumstances I would have been overjoyed and awed to see such a sight, but at the time I was somewhat focussed on other issues. I had to get back to making my way up the channel. Eventually I got to the pontoon area and now had to get the boat alongside. I had a very small space in which to manoeuvre the boat with plenty of scope for going aground. I let the main sail halyard off and it came down a little so I had more ability to depower the boat so I would not go crashing into them! It took three attempts of tacking/gybing around in my little space with fickle winds before I got the boat properly into the pontoon area with enough speed to turn it onto a pontoon. I went along side. Got off. Tied her up. Job done.

I had called the coastguard to say I'm OK but not sure if they heard. So I walked up the gangway to get out of the marina to try calling them with my handheld VHF from another vantage point. As I walked, I saw a coast guard car turn up and 3 people getting out. "Looking for me?" I asked. "Are you PRINCIPIA?" they replied. "I am", I said, "and all is well".

I recounted my story to them and thanked them for coming out to check on me. So now I have some fixing up to do and plan my next trip!