It was the morning of Rich’s third day of work. The wind was roaring in to the beach from the east and the boat had shimmied all night to its wet whistling tune. The day before, another murky one in Palmanova’s normally sunny bay, we’d talked about the need for a reliable second anchor – it would be our first priority once Rich got paid. By morning, we’d both decided that we weren’t going to wait for the paycheque. Sod this. Let’s get secure.
Rich went ashore in the early darkness, lowering himself into a leaping dinghy that was half full of rainwater and rowing like crazy to get to the beach in time to meet his lift. I had woken with him, and I popped my head outside every half an hour or so as daylight thought about breaking behind the sky’s grey film. He’d told me how to let more anchor chain out if I was worried, but we’d guessed that we’d most likely be alright now. The whole process had sounded difficult as it would involve untying the snubber rope that keeps the chain from yanking, but I’d got the gist. Watching the waves hurtling into the beach I knew I wouldn’t be popping to Palma today as intended. I’d stay with Gwen and keep her company through the turbulence. At least the wildness seemed to be steadying now – I could get on with a few things on board.
I had a quick nap and did a bit of housework, stowing what wouldn’t stay balanced along the way. I popped my head out of the hatch to check we were still in place. The boat that was beside us seemed a little further out to sea, but I know I can be a bit paranoid about this sort of thing so I turned on the nav computer to check that we were still within range of our anchor on the GPS.
We had dragged in toward the shore, not by a lot, but enough to have me a little worried. I would probably have to take action. Then the boat icon moved further toward the land. And then further. Our trusty fisherman anchor was still dragging, and not slowly! I turned on the depth sounder and our safe 4m had shrunk to 3. From the deck I saw that the yellow swimming buoys that line the beach were getting close. I was on my own, and Rich was a half hour drive away at work. I let out a long, low wail. One of our worst nightmares was about to become real and the guy who knew what to do wasn’t there.
I turned on the engine battery and water flow, and released the tiller from its lashing. I sent Rich a quick text, “hey, we’re dragging…” apologising that I was about to call him. I turned the key in the aft cabin and revved the engine on deck, then drove Gwen slowly out of the swimming area into which she had now drifted. We’d been in two and a half metres, and Gwen has just under two metres of draft. I tried to call Rich but couldn’t get through. I had to keep driving Gwen into the whipping wind just to keep us from re-entering the shallow swimming area, and I couldn’t figure how I’d get to the front of the boat to deal with the anchor while doing this. I kept driving forward, hopefully towards wherever our anchor now was, and cried. Over the din of our engine and the sea I heard a dinghy engine and a voice with a strong Spanish accent “do you want some help?”
Juan, the neighbour that Rich had met on our first morning here, tied his inflatable dinghy to Gwen and got himself on board. I stuttered thanks, and said I couldn’t get to the anchor and steer at the same time. He wobbled down the concrete deck towards the anchor chain, but then wobbled back “I don’t know what to do”. Of course, the anchor was snubbed up, the windlass incomplete without its handle – there was no indication of how any of this worked. I asked him to take the tiller, and tried to think of a plan of action. I’d have to get the anchor up so we could get away. I’d only done this a couple of times, and then with supervision from Rich and no snubber on. Rich does the anchor, I steer us away – that’s how it’s supposed to work, but there was no time to think about that.
I grabbed the heavy rusty bar that is the windlass handle from its deck home among a pile of snorkelling gear and hose, and put it in the right hole. I pulled on it a few times and took in a bit of chain. Then I dangled myself over the front of the boat, towards the rushing waves, and was relieved to find that I could undo the huge knot on the thick snubber rope. I edged back under the guard wire and threw the rope to one side.
I opened the bedroom hatch and, to Juan’s confusion – “are you alright?”, disappeared below to open the locker that our chain falls into. I pushed myself off the mattress and back on deck, groaning little releases of tension with every push of my body, and went back to the windlass to ratchet in the chain. But the chain wouldn’t come. Pull after heavy pull hoiked it in a little, then returned a little to the water. Juan and I swapped places, me trying to coax Gwen forward though she didn’t seem to want to move, and Juan hauling huge lengths of chain by hand. We realised that the chain was caught around an escaped yellow buoy that we’d dragged from the swimming area, and I had to reverse and steer around that before we could get going or haul more chain. Then the chain got caught around a lower bobstay fitting, which took both of us peering over the sides of the bow to figure out. It was soon released with a slight change of direction.
Ashore Palmanova life went on oblivious to our plight. People walked along the murky beach front, ate at restaurants, ran around the hotels. A few metres out to sea the story was more dramatic. Along the bay a huge unmanned motor cruiser had also dragged and was threatening to destroy a small sailing yacht on its way to a hotel pontoon. The wind seemed to be dying a little, but it had already had its way with we sea folk.
On Gwen, we were finally moving in the right direction. When Juan called back that the anchor was up I drove us further out until our depth went over 4.5m. I called him back to the tiller, showing him as best I could how to put it in neutral (it always catches in reverse or forward – I’m used to it, but how was he to know?) and went to drop the anchor, bashing at the windlass clutch with its own removed handle to release lengths I couldn’t determine. I kept bashing and kicking more chain out until all the wet stuff was out and I could see the faded pink spray painted markings that I guessed meant “50m”. That’s over 10 to 1 chain length to depth. That’s as good as it’s going to get, I figured, then spent a couple of minutes trying to get the windlass to hold there, pulling chain in until I could get the “dog” on, and eventually tightening the clutch the right way. Righty tighty, lefty loosey – who knows where I remember that from, but it did the trick.
Back in the cockpit I thanked Juan for the hundredth time with a wide eyed fake grin, and offered him a coffee, but he had his own boat to get back to. “Are you… around.. this afternoon?” “Yes, I am on the boat all day” Oh thank heavens. I felt rude, rushing inside to text Rich and let him know that his boat was okay as Juan got in to his dinghy. I helped untangle its painter from those of our two dinghies and jabbered out more thanks as he left. And then I was alone again, on the boat that might drag, waiting for the wind to go.
When Rich got back to Palmanova that evening I was ashore and waiting for him. The GPS had showed that we were holding okay for now, and the wind had died down to a gentle flutter in the palm trees. We went for a drink – him a beer, me two beers and a long long whiskey, and I told him of the day’s events in a stream of excited blether, waiting for him to tell me what I could have done better.
“You did everything right. You saved the boat.”
Oh, okay. That hadn’t really occurred to me.
We would make moves to buy another anchor over the next day or two, as our CQR really isn’t up to being a reserve anchor in this sort of wind. We would go back to the boat and relax and have a weekend of fun. For now, all we had to do was buy a couple of boxes of beer and row over to a neighbours’ boat to offer them in thanks to someone without whom Gwen might not have made it back to safety. We found a warm reception, some pizza and a good evening’s chat. Everything’s been safe enough since then, and the new anchor, a fancy and very very expensive Rockna Vulcan (sorry, overdraft), should arrive on Friday.
There’s a lot more to tell you. Rich’s job is going well and leaves him still able to enjoy his evenings, and I had an interview yesterday with a language school. I’ve started running again, and I still swim most days although the water’s colder than off mainland Spain. We’ve visited Palma and it’s gorgeous. We’ve made plans to spend this weekend at our local theme park and eat one of these much-advertised full English breakfasts before the whole area closes down for November. That low level fear that keeps you alert to the wind forecasts and a myriad of other factors, that one that I thought we’d leave behind with the cruising if we spent winter at a marina, that’s not going. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We chose this life, and we like it, and there are going to be scary days. We need to be ready for them, and know that we can get through them. Even at rest, the adventure goes on.