UPHILL OUT OF THE MED: NOT ALL SMOOTH SAILING ON HARMONICA
We left Tunisia at midday to head for Mallorca, 320 miles away. A 3 1/2 day sail in normal conditions. We knew of Maestral-type weather conditions further north, but expected quieter sailing along the coast of North Africa. We found it difficult to get weather forcasts for this area. The guide says prevailing winds are NE and any Gales are usually N or S. We set off with black rain clouds around. We were both still tired from 20 hours of bus travel over 4 days up & down the length of Tunisia, and I was recovering from a tummy flu. Just outside the port of Tabarka, we commented on the big NW swell, but the breeze was light easterly so we coasted along under spinnaker thinking the swell to be remnants from thunderstorms.
Seas became lumpy and the wind strong westerly. I started to be sick and continued to be so for the next 24 hours (a result of my tummy bug). I still managed to do my 3 hour watches with my ziplock bag in hand. Winds and seas built through the night and by morning we could not make headway, and "Otto" could not manage to steer for us. Seas were 3-4 metres with breaking waves covered with foam. We hove to (set the sails and rudder into a position to keep the boat as still as possible and at a good angle to the waves for a smoother ride!) and looked at our options. Return to Tunisia, seek refuge in Algeria (The cruising guide does not recommend stopping in Algeria, except in emergencies, due to the unstable political situation), or stay hove to. Dave leaned towards the second, I leaned towards the third. We decided to stay where we were and did so for 24 hours. At this stage I was feeling less nauseous but weak from lack of nourishment. Dave was now looking far from normal. We called the Algerian coast guard for a weather report for the night and following day, but they could only tell us current weather. Harmonica would not stay completely still. She moved at 1 to 1.5 knots but lost almost no way to leaward. We appeared to be in a shipping lane and spent the next 24 hours watching and calling ships if they came too close as we tacked 8 - 20 miles in and out from the shore while hove to. The weather worstened during the night. We experienced torrential rain, waves breaking over the boat, and strong winds. Rain or seawater got into every crack and crevice of poor Harmonica but she was sturdy and I felt safe in her. I never felt afraid but my legs sometimes trembled. I am not sure whether it was lack of food or subconcious fear. Moving around the boat became difficult and I am still finding bruises as a result.
The following morning the skies began to clear and I realised we had weathered the storm. Dave commented that he had never seen such rough seas from a boat. The seas were still rough but the wind less strong as we set sail once again. We were still seeing a lot of shipping. One captain of a very large freighter told us we should have orange sails as he had not seen our white boat and sails against the white caps and had not pick us up on radar due to sea clutter from the waves. It was only our radio call to him that alerted him to our presence right in his path! Through all this the winds were on the nose making it difficult to make way in a favourable direction. The engine would not run due to some air in the fuel system from a stupid oversight (we had only bled the lines from one fuel tank after running out of fuel before Tabarka). We were relying on our sails. With the seas hitting our bow, despite several attempts, we failed to tack, but gybed round without problem. I felt like a sitting duck.
By evening seas began to calm down although it was still rolly. Dave had the messy task of bleeding the engine. I tackled the 3 days of washing up which I discovered was sitting in a mess of black greasy blobs which kept spouting up at me out of the sink drain. Every time I put the plug in it would jump out and more grease balls shot out. The result of oily bilge water put down the kitchen sink a few days before and remaining in the pipes! At this stage I realised I was being tested to the limits of my endurance. Everything I put on the counter jumped straight on to the floor. I began to hallucinate about staying in 5 star hotels. By evening weather and seas had calmed down. I sat in the cockpit watching a beautiful sunset. Small birds that looked to have blown off course flew around the boat. One small yellow bird came into the cockpit and landed briefly on my head before flying on its way. The moon came up over the clouds. I could see friendly creatures in the shapes of the clouds. A feeling of elation that we had survived the elements suddenly flowed through me.
Our normal mainsail was away in England being re-cut, so we used the old main for the entire passage. It is probably over 20 years old, and had torn the week before. The top track slide came adrift, but otherwise it held for us. The currents were entirely unpredictable and it was so demoralising to hit a contrary current of over 2 knots in the middle of the sea (shown by 2 GPS units & 2 compasses) that Dave's first thought was that either the GPS satelites had been scrambled or that we had hit an enormous magnetic anomoly. The sky was too cloudy to check direction from stars.
In reflection it was probably not anywhere near the worst weather we could have been out in, but it was the worst we have experienced in Harmonica. Afterwards, we decided we were in a force 9 gale. Another comfort was our daily checkin with the Mediterranean cruisers net. They knew we were hove to off Algeria, and when we did not checkin on the second day they put out an emergency boat watch for us.
Over the next 2 days, the sea flattened completely and we shot into Mallorca at 6 knots in light southerlies at the end of a 5 1/2 day passage. Here we saw streets with busy traffic, ate hamburgers and fries in a shopping mall. Jan cleaned off the boat while Dave slept off the cold which had developed during some cold night watches.
Dave & Jan