A Single Hand / by duncan mckenzie

I cannot recall a single detail about that first eleven hour journey to Garrucha, despite it being my entry into the world of single-handing. This is because what happened on the next fifteen hour journey rounding Cabo de Gata was so intense that some kind of amnesiac trauma used up all my mental capacity including the part which stored the first journey. Clearly I am now into working soldier territory.

The forecast was good for the second journey in terms of wind. Strongish following winds to blow me where I wanted to go, some sea state but, moving along in the waves’ direction, hardly a concern. However, less ideal, I was to sail through the centre of of a low pressure system, with associated unsettled weather :rain, thunderstorms, our old friend lightning, gust fronts, squalls. Overall, I figured it would be a good way to get to know how safe Czarina Blue would make me feel when the shit hit the fan, before I got into bigger projects. 

After a few hours sleep I left Garrucha at 0245 hours, the wind that had been pinning the boat to the quay when I arrived had now switched direction so that when I untied my lines the boat drifted off without bother, worth a whole crowd of boat crew and marine staff to a single-hander.

It was dark, but the heavy rain of the previous evening had stopped and the wind was moderate so the atmosphere was not intimidating. In the darkness beyond the marina wall, the invisible swell tossed the boat around as I fully reefed the mainsail in preparation for probable squalls later, and part reefed the foresail, the little mizzen sail fully out. 

I made good progress down the coast on a broad reach, the wind gradually increasing to about 20 knots. The boat was creaming along at up to 7.5 knots, its hull speed. There was visible fork lightening in two patches, but they were off to the south east, not in my direction of travel.

That was when it happened. I was about a mile off of some industrial and fishing ports when I picked up a radio report on channel 16, on which I was keeping a listening watch. Cabo de Gata radio gave a Pan Pan report (ship’s security update). ‘We have big seas tonight.’ That was all she said. 

Cabo de Gata radio exists to control and monitor the TSS or shipping lanes that are positioned on the corner of south east Spain. Small vessels like mine must avoid this shipping motorway by navigating the Inshore Traffic Zone. But we travel immediately adjacent to the ships. And if a radio operator that deals with the interests of enormous cargo ships is mentioning “big seas”, one can only presume they mean seas of interest to vessels of half a million tonnes, as opposed to my own vessel, about 12. Visions of thirty or forty foot waves came to mind.

As did something the pilot book had warned about: when strong E or NE winds blow against the prevailing east-going current (the Atlantic pours into the Med at Gibraltar and flows east), at Cabo de Gata (the corner) disturbed seas can build where the two forces meet. Could that be what the radio report referred to? 

This episode had a profound affect on me, which was immediately exacerbated by forked lightening flickering maybe 7 or 8 miles ahead, in my direction of travel. I immediately went below to consult my passage plan I had made the day before, a side of A4 with What the plan is, and What to do if the plan goes wrong. Under my list of Ports of Refuge, I found that there were two possibilities. The first was immediately adjacent, a choice of industrial ports ‘only in emergency’ and a busy fishing harbour with questionable depths where ‘sailors would have to take their chances tying alongside fishing vessels’. 

The only other port of refuge was right down on the corner of Cabo de Gata, too late to find that I was in over my head. Strangely I also now recalled my mother’s words of encouragement for my first single-handed voyage: ‘I hope it goes swimmingly’. 

Actually the expression ‘I want to call my Mummy’ literally crossed my mind. I grinned sardonically at the very idea of it. Because that’s the thing with single-handing, I now realised. You are on your own. My Dad, a great sailor, would have had a considered view on the matter, but he wasn’t here. It was up to me now. It felt like the beginning of some kind of powerful initiation.

I pondered the variables for several minutes, whilst the boat barrelled on seemingly towards the jaws of death. Then I made a decision. ‘Better safe than sorry’, ‘There are no old, bold sailors’, etc. I chickened out and decided to seek refuge now. I considered the industrial ports: plenty of room to manoeuvre, but did a sailor losing his nerve constitute an emergency? And how easily can one tie up to a 20 foot concrete quay designed for massive ships? 

I opted for the fishing harbour, and tacked in its direction. On approach I re-read the description and pondered the chances of grounding, and the potential damage caused to rigging whilst tied to a huge fishing boat. I decided that there was nothing for it but to back track north several hours to Garrucha, my point of departure. I would tie up again before daylight and the other sailors would have no idea about my cowardly outing.

I tacked again to start the process of zig zagging through the wind to claw my way north, and suddenly saw that whilst one tack gave me north-west, some forwards progress to Garrucha, the other tack took me exactly east out to sea, and I was now pounding in to the waves and wind that had seemed so fun on the way down. It would clearly take more than 6 hours to get back to Garrucha. 

So at that moment, I decided to run with it. I turned back in my original direction to the south, towards the flickering lightning, and decided that the jaws of death would just have to put up with me. Along the lines of, say, some necessary dental treatment.

My boat’s track had now created a neat triangle on the screen of the chart plotter, a symbolic triangle of indecision. With the triangle now complete, I took charge and we headed south. Czarina would just have to look after me, and that would be that. We were in this together, me and Czarina, we were facing this as a team. 

A strong feeling of elation and certainty overcame me. This was the initiation of the single-hander, I realised. You make the call, and you run with it. Never mind the lady on the radio with the sexy Pan Pan voice and the horrific cryptic phrasing.

One good thing about ‘walking the boards’ for an hour (something Captain Cook used to do a lot of, tacking back and forth in the same spot awaiting daylight for a safe approach to land), was that I was an hour nearer to daylight. And when you are feeling edgy, there is something incredibly uplifting about daylight. With daylight, even if the waves are huge, you can at least see them coming and react! As the twilight glow began at about 7am, I felt a sense of almost well-being.

The very grey low cloud remained, but the lightning moved off to the east. My only friend the autopilot had plenty of energy from the furiously spinning wind generator. However I regularly took the helm to enjoy the ride and make skilled use of the wind, now 25 knots, to surf the boat down waves, making at one point 10 knots and regularly into the eights and nines. I was having fun. 

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The seas did build as we approached the headland of Cabo de Gata, but not unduly since we were running with them. The occasional rogue wave, a small part of which jumped into the cockpit with me, lent excitement to our high-energy journey. I made coffee and felt rather upbeat, as a short ray of sunshine struck the foredeck. 

The next radio report created a different atmosphere. ‘A small vessel which is believed to have left the African coast yesterday, 27 persons on board, is adrift and headed north in the direction of the Spanish coast. All vessels in the area please maintain watch and if sighted please report their position to the maritime authorities.’

I sighted no refugees, but on rounding the cape the seas calmed and the sun came out by late morning and I had a hot meal. As I gazed across at the thousands of acres of poly tunnels that provide most of north Europe’s food, a spring-shackle exploded when its C-clip pinged off, and another block did the same. Otherwise all was well on the boat until the last hour.

An enormous cumulo nimbus arrived from the northwest, blocking our approach to Almerimar. Below the cloud were not only clear hanging beads of rain but also an enormous churning grey brown mass of what looked like a dust storm, although it appeared to be over the water not the land. Anyway it spelt bad news, and I furled the genoa to Brazilian bikini size. I tried to tack away from it but the 35 knot gust front overcame us followed by the heaviest monsoon rainfall I have ever experienced. It actually made me laugh in its intensity. It washed the boat and sails very thoroughly and I was very glad of my hard roof and windscreen which I sheltered behind. 

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We were soon in Almerimar marina surrounded by gruff mariners who had clearly had yet another normal day, and a man who called himself ‘Frankenstein’ (Francisco) who seemed to take more information about the boat then any other marina receptionist, whilst I struggled to stay awake in front of him. I tied up in my slot, showered and collapsed. Thus initiated. 

Source: https://youtu.be/Mxgq0F7nlj0