South to the Canaries

The dot-com officer having been busy with his A-level studies, the Mollymawk website has spent the past few months lying unattended on its moorings. Not so the vessel herself – or at any rate, not quite so much so.
This very belated report describes our passage south from the Mediterranean port of Melilla down to the Canary Islands.

People often write to us asking, “What special skills do you need in order to go cruising?” Well, herewith, in Part I of the report, you have your answer. Like the rest of life, cruising is a hotch-potch of sunshine and squalls. If you want to cast off from the shore and put yourself beyond the helping hands of mechanics, medics, and law and order, you need to accept the fact that, thereafter, you alone will be responsible for your fate during the squalls. Preparation is one part of the answer but it seldom provides the whole solution. Essentially, the key skills required by the offshore sailor are clever thinking and the ability to bodge something up out of whatever is to hand. Indeed, now I come to think of it, a boat drifting about on the briney would be the ideal venue for one of those ascetic self-sufficiency courses beloved of business men and other such folk who are never ever going to need to be self sufficient…


It was a strange journey.

The girls hoisting the main in the lee of Cabo Tres Forchas
The girls hoisting the main in the lee of Cabo Tres Forchas

Christmas was nigh and the weather was nasty. Determined to escape from Europe, we set off to leave Melilla in a strong westerly – and even if you don’t sail it should be apparent that trying to head west when the wind is blowing from that same direction is not clever. Heading west into a strong westerly is the equivalent of climbing a very steep hill.
The wind was actually forecast to rise still further – from its current force six to a gale force eight – but by that time, we reckoned, we could be safe and snug in the Moroccan port of Al Hoceima (roughly half way between Melilla and Gibraltar).

That was the plan.

Melilla lies on the eastern side of a mountainous spit called Cabo Tres Forcas, and so our departure from the port was made over flat waters. The sun shone down, feebly but brightly, the boat romped along merrily, and things were really rather pleasant, if a little on the chilly side. When we reached the cape, however, we stepped from the shelter of the mountains into a really rough sea. Taken on the stern it would have been nothing to complain about but, of course, we were slamming into the short, steep waves.

The boat rocked up and down like a crazy see-saw; it swung and swooped like the cart on a fairground waltzer; and four out of six of us promptly decided that we would like to get off the ride. We did not think much of slogging into this wicked sea for the next twenty four hours – all the while with the threat of a gale hanging over us – and so we proposed a return to base. The ship’s dog was amongst the most vociferous in her complaint. She had by now adjusted to the idea of the land disappearing over the horizon, but she had certainly not got her sea-legs. So it was that we turned tail and ran – and so it was that the following week was spent anchored, once more, in the port of Melilla, with the gale howling through the rigging and the rain rushing past in ugly grey sheets.
Don’t let anyone kid you that Africa is perpetually hot and sunny. Five miles along the coast it was snowing, or so we were told, and in the mountains of the interior the temperature was down to minus eleven.

The minute that the wind went into the east we got underway – and this time we didn’t look back. The change in the wind’s direction had transformed the journey from an uphill struggle to a stroll in the park – or so it seemed.

Evening saw us rounding the cape for a second time and gazing across at one of the most bizarre lighthouses I have ever seen. Perched precariously on a rock, it resembles a red brick doll’s house. Six white-framed casement windows fill the wall on either side of a big front door, and upstairs, above this first row, are seven more to match. It is as if some strong, unnatural wind had taken a Georgian town-house, swept it up from its genteel surroundings, and deposited it on a lofty pinnacle of rock against a backdrop of rugged, barren cliffs. One would be hard put to come up with a more surreal situation. If I painted it, it would look like a work of fantasy, and if I posted a snap-shot any passing viewer would assume that it had been “photoshopped”.

The day had been sunny, and as night fell upon us the sky became covered in a million bright jewels. Unless you live somewhere far from the lights of a town or the loom of a city you will seldom have seen a sky such as this; indeed, I suppose that in this modern world there are probably many people who have never, ever seen such a sky. Every constellation was painted there, but the lesser stars were shining at their best too, so that the familiar patterns were camouflaged by the multitude and the overall effect was of dark velvet heavily sprinkled with silver sequins. The brightest sequin of them all, by far, was Jupiter; a star of wonder leading us westward, just as it led the three kings.

The skipper on night watch
The skipper on night watch

It was bitterly cold in the cockpit. The wind sought out every cuff and collar and stole the heat from our well-wrapped bodies. Meanwhile, the steel hull most effectively conducted the sea temperature up, through those many layers of cloth, and into our bones. Before we go south to the other end of the world we will build a wooden lining for the cockpit; or at any rate, we plan to.

Roxanne and I took the first watch, and she was thrilled when a school of dolphins came to travel with us:
“They played around us, diving and leaving trails of phosphorescence and bubbles. There were five jumping [or rather, rising to breathe] at the same time. We were unable to see what kind they were, in the dark. We could only see the trails that they were leaving and hear them gasp.”

At two in the morning Caesar took over the watch, and Roxanne and I turned in.
Now, for me, the first night at sea is never a very restful one. The ceaseless rocking and rolling of the boat seems tiresome, and the constant hum of the wind in the rigging, combined with the groaning of the rudder and the occasional sudden loud clatter of a winch, compose what, for me, is an unmelodious racket rather than a lullaby. So it was that I was dozing fitfully when I heard the boat run aground.

“We’re aground! We’ve run aground!” I came tearing out of the aft cabin, yelling at the top of my voice.
“Caesar!” I shot up the ladder – but Caesar was not there, at the wheel.
“Nick!” I hopped back down into the main cabin – but Nick was not there, in his favourite seaberth.
Where the devil were they? “We’re aground! We’ve run aground!” – but now a doubt entered my mind.
The sound made by a boat running slowly onto a sandy bottom is unmistakable; I have heard it before (the Mar Menor being very shallow and not very well charted…). But had I really heard that unforgettable noise,or had I just been dreaming? When I left the cockpit, only a couple of hours earlier, we were twenty miles from the nearest shore and travelling at only four knots. Certainly, Caesar could not have wandered twenty miles off course and sailed the boat up the beach – that idea was both inconceivable and impossible – but, then again, there were surely no uncharted sandbanks in the middle of the Med.
“Nick! Caesar! Where the …?”
A call reached my ears; they were on the aft deck, peering down into the water.
I shot back up the ladder again, and Caesar said, “We’ve sailed into a net.”

Ah, yes – of course! We’ve done that before too – the Mar Menor is full of unmarked, or poorly marked fishing nets – and the sound made by the keel as it scrapes over the tightly stretched line at the top of the net is much the same as the sound it makes when sliding over a sandy seabed.

The net had evidently slid along the length of our keel and had now come to rest in the notch between the keel and the skeg. At one time we had a wire fitted across this gap, but when it broke, all unbeknownst to us, it trawled along three metres below the boat and caused us to dredge up deeper troubles. One solution to the problem might be a solid bar, fitted across the gap, but bars such as this have been known to cause structural damage in the event of a grounding.

Our biggest fear, when we run into a net, is of the fishermen who own it – because, generally speaking, the only way to get clear of a net is to cut it. And fishermen don’t think much of having their nets cut. We could see the fishermen who owned this net – or rather, we could see their boat, one and a half miles away (according to the radar). They seemed to be hauling on the other end of the line.

The net was bar taut and we could see it extending on either side of the boat at right angles. Our first impulse was to cut it quickly and get away, prontisimo. Caesar and I lashed two boathooks together and fastened a sharp knife onto one end. But when we lowered our weapon into the water and shone a torch into the sea we found that the top of the net was supported and protected by a continuous line of hard PVC floats two inches in diameter. There was no way we were going to be able to cut through that with a knife.

This seemed to leave us with only two options. Either we wait for the owners of the net to arrive – and suffer the consequences – or else Caesar and I must dive and cut through the PVC pipe with a saw. In fact, to be more accurate, Caesar did not think much of the idea of diving under the boat in the dark, in a fairly rough sea, in rather cold water – Caesar cannot recall our previous encounters with irate fishermen – and so that just left me. I am even more scared of fishermen than I am of cold, dark water.

I went below to find my gear. Wetsuit, BCD, weight-belt, flippers, mask, regulator, torch…
“Does anybody know where the diving torch has gone?”
No, they didn’t.
Well how the heck could I find my way about in the dark without a torch? Monofilament net is hard enough to spot even in a good light.
And was there time, anyway, for me to tog-up and get into the water and cut the net before dawn arrived and betrayed us to the pirates?
I looked at the clock. We had about one hour in which to perform the deed and make our getaway. It was not enough; even if we motored we would still be on the scene of the crime when dawn and the fishermen arrived. And then what would they do to us? Two meek and mild men, a couple of women, and a child – alone and far from the reach of friends or even witnesses – at the mercy of a dozen angry men in a large, big-engined boat.

And then the skipper had the brilliant idea of making something with which to push the net out from under our keel.
“We need a T-shaped thing… Something that we can fasten to the end of the spinnaker pole… But I wonder if the spinnaker pole is long enough to reach to the bottom of the keel…?”
“It needn’t be T-shaped, ” I said, latching onto the idea and ignoring Nick’s doubts. “All we need is a large square of plywood. Lashed in place it would be stronger than a T-shaped thing. You could cut a hollow curve along the bottom edge so that the net didn’t pop out… How about one of my drawing boards?”
“Ideal,”he said. “But I’ll have to drill holes in it. Are you sure you don’t mind sacrificing it?”
“For Pete’s sake! These guys are going to kill us, and you worry about the price of a new drawing board! Get on with it!”

And so the plywood drawing board was cut to shape and fitted with holes and was lashed to the end of the spinnaker pole. When this was found to be insufficient – just as the skipper had feared – we lashed the sweep (a very long oar) onto the other end of the pole. Clearly, the materials employed in this fabrication were not ideal – even the hollow metal spinnaker pole floats until it fills up – but they were the only ones which we had to hand. When all was ready we shoved the board down into the water, the top end of the device was padded with a cushion, and with Nick’s full weight applied, most perilously, to force it down. The fabulous invention proved just barely long enough to push the net down from under the keel to the bottom of the skeg. From here it was forced aft, very carefully, past the main rudder and the fragile self-steering rudder, and out from under the boat.

The entire drama, from start to finish, occupied three and a half hours.

Yachtsmen who have a rope cutter fitted to their prop may like to note that the two inch diameter PVC floats would probably have destroyed such a device, had the vessel been motoring.
The strain on the bar taut rope was such that we were afraid that it was damaging the steel skeg – throughout the entire period we could hear graunching, straining noises, as the floats struggled to lift their load to the surface – and we believe that this pressure would probably have done considerable damage to a balanced rudder. Indeed, to put it bluntly, we believe that such a rudder would probably have been torn off.

Xoë, who came on watch just after we got free, spent the rest of the night avoiding similar pitfalls. Twice she had to round up at the last moment having sighted a net in the water immediately ahead of the boat. The phosphorescent glow of plankton resting on the net was the only thing which betrayed the presence of the snare. Clearly, this area is best avoided, particularly in this season, and perhaps at all times. Mark it on your chart – and if you are passing this way by night, give it a wide berth.

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