Watch Out Orcas About
Updated: Oct 17, 2021
"Our galvanised steel anchor crashed straight into the back of another boat, a sitting duck moored alongside the jetty."
Owning a boat has often been described to us as ripping up money and throwing it around while standing in the rain. If it didn’t already feel like that, it certainly did this week. We had had a lovely week sightseeing in and around Lisbon, but we knew we had some important boat work to take care of before the open water crossing to the Canaries. We had made two big investments in preparation for the crossing which we needed to collect. The first investment, a wind steering system called a Hydrovane had been ordered for us to collect in Gibraltar. This mechanical wind steering system allows you to set a course and it steers according to the wind. It will work even in bigger waves and strong winds, unlike our electric autopilot and would have made our Biscay crossing so much easier if we had it then. It will be an extremely important piece of equipment for our crossing to the Canaries and then across the Atlantic. It also has its own rudder independent of the boat’s rudder. The loss of a rudder can be catastrophic as you cannot steer. This is why the attacks on boats rudders by orcas along the Spanish and Portuguese coastlines have been so frightening. You may have heard in the news that groups of orcas have been attacking and breaking the rudders of sailing boats. One of the theories for why they are doing this is that it is a game and they have learned they can control the movement of the whole boat just from moving the rudder. Unfortunately lots of boats have had their rudders broken off due to this. Once this happens, you have to be rescued as your boat has no means of steering. The Hydrovane would give us a backup rudder if anything were to happen to our boat’s rudder, so it is an extra level of safety in addition to alleviating the need to hand steer - it essentially becomes an extra crew member; one that doesn’t need to take breaks. The Hydrovane is made by a Canadian company and they are very expensive due to the small size of the market. We had stalled on buying one as we were hoping to try and get one second hand, but unfortunately they rarely become available. Our experience crossing Biscay while hand steering made us bite the bullet and put in our order for a new one.
The second investment, a watermaker that can convert to manual operation in case of electrical failure, had been ordered from a German company. We were planning to collect it from Lagos on the South Coast of Portugal. The watermaker will enable us to make drinking water from seawater and to be able to live longer at anchor rather than paying for marinas. It will also allow us to visit more remote places, such as uninhabited islands in the future. This was something we had bought second hand before we left, but it turned out that the company that sold it to us was extremely dodgy and the man who sold it to us, notorious among marine workers in Southampton. He hadn’t given us all of the parts to make the watermaker function. After weeks of calling the company and being diverted and fobbed off, I eventually made my way out to the company office in the middle of nowhere. The whole office was covered in rubbish. The man was very unpleasant, but as I refused to leave and had written negative comments all over his social media pages, he reluctantly agreed to a refund. This meant we had the funds to order a brand new one.
As we were about to leave the marina in Lisbon, we also realised that our mains electricity was not working. So that was another issue to look into in Lagos. We also had some longer standing maintenance to do before leaving the relative safety of coastal waters and crossing to the Canaries. One of those was to replace our automatic bilge pump and the other was to fix our third reefing line, which you may remember had gone inside the boom and out the other side because the end hadn’t been knotted after we had our outhaul cable replaced. Lagos is a very long way from Lisbon, all the way on the South coast, so we decided to split the journey into two. A day sail to an anchorage in the natural park of Arrábida and then a 24 hour journey all the way to Lagos to collect the watermaker and get some boat work done.
After a week in the city, we were excited about anchoring in Arrábida. As we approached Arrábida we saw a completely different type of coastline from the usual sandy beaches you see along the Portuguese coast. Here were mysterious shadowy caves interspersed all the way along the sheer cliffsides. We passed the Convent of our Lady of Arrábida, a sprawling series of whitewashed red roofed buildings nestled in the forest on the mountain. The anchorage was at a golden sandy beach with a huge Italianate palace set into the cliffside above it. With the shades of umber, ochre and sienna in the beach, the cliffs and the palace; and trees and climbing plants of the forest clambering across them, the whole scene looked like a seventeenth century Italian landscape painting. In truth though, the anchorage was a pain to get into! We had to try three times before we found a spot we were fully happy with. Every time we have to bring the anchor up, we can’t just bring it all up in one go as the anchor chain gets jammed in the windlass, so every ten metres the person lifting the chain has to jump down the hatch into the bow cabin and push the chain to the back of the anchor locker before jumping back through the hatch on deck and doing the next ten metres and so on. The person on the helm has to try and keep the boat in position and avoid getting too close to other boats or straying into a shallow area. The whole area was surrounded by fishing buoys with lines linking some of the buoys so it would have been easy to get our propeller caught. Luckily we found a gap away from buoys. The next challenge was dropping our anchor at the right depth. The seabed was full of sudden deeps and shallows. One second it was sixteen metres - which we don’t have enough anchor chain for (as you need five times the length of chain for each metre of depth you anchor in), the next it was three metres, which would have left us grounded come low water. We didn’t only have to consider the depth where we dropped the anchor. The currents were very strong in this area, stronger than the wind and so we knew that as the tide came in and out the boat would move position 180 degrees. This meant we had to consider the potential depth at low water if the boat moved. Low water was not until 10.00pm so we had to keep a close eye on the depth and position of the boat.
The other potential hazard we were wary of was the reputation of the anchorage for katabatic winds. Usually an anchorage will offer good protection if the wind is coming over the land and the land is high enough to shelter you from that wind. The natural mountain range here meant that we were sheltered from the northerly wind. However, high land is not always protective, it can put you at risk of katabatic winds. A katabatic wind is a wind that blows at night from an area of cooler high ground. As the air cools it becomes denser than the warmer air at lower elevations (like where we were on the beach), this cooler air from above flows rapidly down the slope. This sinking air is accelerated by the force of gravity and winds can reach high speeds even under very calm conditions. However, luckily we had got our anchorage spot right in the end and avoided grounding and we were not subject to katabatic winds that night.
The next morning we set off for our 24 hour passage to Lagos on the south coast. It was a cloudy day and there was absolutely no wind, so we had to motorsail with just the mainsail up. As evening approached, Suki clambered up the stairs to join us in the cockpit. The cats are not usually allowed above deck when we are underway; but there were two of us there, so one of us could stay on the helm and the other one watch that she didn’t leave the cockpit area. They are used to coming up to the cockpit in the mornings and evenings and sleep inside in the daytime. As she had been inside with the engine on all day we decided to allow her to stay for a while. She took great interest in watching the lights onshore and the movement of the water around the boat. As it got darker, she had to go inside for safety reasons and we put the door in so she or Chocolate couldn’t climb up without us noticing at night.
We took shifts overnight and what a night it was. Unlike the northern part of Portugal’s western coast, the southern part is much less developed. This means there are far fewer fishing boats to look out for and much less light pollution from the coast. As we looked down at the waterline as the boat travelled through the gentle waves we saw luminous phosphorescent particles lighting up the water. The quieter waters from the lack of fishing boats also gave us the time to appreciate the vast starry sky. Those night skies are something I have been dreaming of. I have never forgotten the nightwatch I took when crossing from Colombia to Panama by sailing boat many years ago while travelling in South America. The immensity and tranquility of the night sky and the time to appreciate it to me feels like a timeless human connection to the universe. It’s one that I’ve never put in the effort to properly and regularly appreciate in England, with the light pollution and freezing night time temperatures. I am so excited about crossing the Atlantic and doing some more star gazing as we will rarely cross the path of other boats and there won’t be any light pollution. Biscay, for the brief seconds I looked up, had amazing clear starry skies but I was too scared and busy trying to stay on course in the ginormous waves to appreciate them!
As the night waned and we rounded the south coast, we were heading east as the dawn broke. The cloudy skies made for a spectacular sunrise which we gradually edged closer and closer towards. As the sun rose and the sky burst into flames, the water’s reflection was bathed in a warm pink light lapping around the boat. Suki and Chocolate joined us for breakfast in the cockpit and we all appreciated this gorgeous breaking of day. Soon we were approaching Lagos. This marina has 24 hour entry, but we were rather taken aback at quite how narrow and shallow this rocky channel was as we entered at low water; at times we had less than two metres under the keel and there were lots of boats coming in the other direction as we proceeded up the channel. The entrance to the marina had a lifting footbridge. Sailing boats with their high masts have to call them on the VHF radio for them to open it, so we decided to fill up our tank at the fuel berth before we entered and then wait on the jetty for the bridge to be opened.
We filled up our tank and left the fuel berth. We were heading past a couple of other boats which were moored on the side of the pontoon and we were going to moor in front of them while we waited for the bridge to open. I was on the side of the boat with the mooring lines ready to step on to the pontoon and secure the boat. Suddenly I realised we were heading straight for one of the boats moored on the side. I shouted at Luciano. He shouted back that we had lost steering, the wheel was completely loose and wasn’t turning the rudder. We have a massive fender tied to our granny rail at the bottom of the mast. But the channel was so narrow and we were passing so close to the boats that when he suddenly lost control of the steering it was already too late for me to untie the fender. Our galvanised steel anchor crashed straight into the back of another boat, a sitting duck moored alongside the jetty. The owner, a wheelchair user, who was lying on his deck, could only look on helplessly as we went straight into his boat. But we were still in the narrow channel at low water with rocks on one side and boats on the other with no way of controlling the boat. Luckily there was another boat next to the one we had crashed into with the owners around. I was able to throw the bow line to this boat owner. The friend of the boat owner we had crashed into was able bodied and I was able to throw him the stern line. With Luciano able to put the engine in forward and reverse, eventually they were able to walk our boat round the front of the boat we had hit and to tie us to the pontoon.
We immediately rushed to assess the damage to the other boat. This was a situation we had always vowed we wouldn’t put another boat owner in after we were hit by another boat on our first attempt to bring our boat back from Cardiff. We bought our boat, Matusadona in March 2020, just before the first lockdown and had had to wait until the Summer until we could attempt to sail her back to Southampton. We had never been in charge of a boat before and had been hoping that our friend Peter, an experienced sailor who we had been out practising with on his boat would be able to come with us. Unfortunately, due to family circumstances he was unable to accompany us. That left Luciano and myself and my stepdad Andy, a builder, who is extremely handy in general, but doesn’t have much sailing experience. We weren’t sure whether we could do it alone. The Bristol Channel in itself is a big challenge, having the second greatest tidal range in the world, between 12 and 14 metres. Then there is the west coast of southern England with few safe harbours compared to the south coast. One of the few is Padstow, with its tidal gate and sand banks and specific entrance times depending on the tides. Then there was getting either round Lands End and the Lizard which can be rough, or going out to the Isles of Scilly which avoids Lands End but is an open sea passage and has difficult anchorages. We considered whether to try and hire a skipper to help us. However, Peter had strongly advised us to bring the boat back ourselves as we would learn so much from doing so and he also had faith in our abilities.
In the end, we decided to go for it ourselves. We waited for the first day of good weather and set out early in the morning. When leaving the marina at Cardiff, we had to go through a tidal lock - the huge tidal range in the Bristol Channel makes this essential, or the marina would not be able to retain an adequate depth of water. We entered the lock - the very first time we would be entering the Bristol Channel. As we tied up against the sides of the lock, Luciano on the helm, Andy on the bow line and myself on the stern line, I saw a boat coming speeding in behind us way way too fast. His anchor smashed into the back of our boat, breaking the casing of our brand new outboard engine which was bolted to the back of the boat, breaking the outboard bracket and ripping the teak seat off the back of the boat. This solo sailor was not at all apologetic. He said that I should have pushed the boat off. If I had done so I would have broken my hands as he had come in flying. In the end he huffed and puffed and pulled out £30 and said that was all he had.
We were too in shock and too focused on what lay ahead of us to question him. As we entered the Bristol Channel the winds were twice as strong as forecast - 28 knots and the waves were huge. We had put up our whole sail while still in the shelter straight after exiting the lock and based on a forecast of winds up to 14 knots. We knew we had to reef the sail, but we weren’t very confident with doing this on this brand new boat. On Peter’s boat, all the ropes go back into the cockpit and you can control them from there. On our boat you have to physically go up to the mast. This delay in reefing was one of the contributing factors to our sail ripping. This was all on our first day in charge of our boat. We dropped the sail and turned around, knowing we had to get the sail repaired. We proceeded back towards Cardiff painfully slowly in the big waves and I was sick down the side of the boat for good measure. We managed to make it to a mooring buoy usually reserved for the pilot vessels that guide the big container ships just as dusk fell. If they hadn’t had space we would have had to go all the way back to Cardiff in the dark when we were already lacking confidence about sailing in the daytime. The next day we shamefacedly limped back into the marina in Cardiff, complete with ripped sail, broken outboard engine and vomit down the side of the boat.
We got the sail patched and tried to chase the guy who had crashed into us to see if we could claim through his insurance. There had been a witness who had seen what happened and had passed his name and his boat’s name to a contact in Cardiff. Unfortunately, despite finding out the marina where the man kept his boat and leaving messages for him, we were never able to get hold of him and claim the full costs of the damage. We reconsidered whether we were capable of doing this trip without help. We realised it was partly bad luck - being crashed into. But we had also learned some important lessons. One of them was not to leave on the first day of good weather after strong winds - there can still be a big swell. Another lesson was to reef early and be realistic about how far we could travel in a day. Luciano and I had lots of arguments. We were scared, we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t trust each other as both of us were equally inexperienced and had different opinions on what to do. Amid all this, Andy had had enough and was ready to go home. Eventually we decided to give it one last try, just the three of us. The second try we did make it all the way back to Southampton and learned lots more lessons the hard way on the journey.
Anyway, we didn’t want to be that guy and try to evade responsibility for the damage we had caused. The owner of the boat we hit in Lagos turned out to be a Catalan called Manel. If we didn’t feel bad enough, as we inspected the damage, Manel explained he had just been about to depart to cross for the Canaries after having to wait in Lagos for three weeks to have his boat repaired after it had been attacked by orcas and his rudder had been destroyed. He was desperate to leave as soon as possible as the maritime police had told him that the orcas have now gone north to Galicia; he wanted to leave while the coast was clear so he wouldn’t be attacked again. We felt absolutely terrible. The pushpit (the stainless steel frame on the back of the boat) was wobbly and there were some marks on the stern. We took a video of the damage and told him that we would need to contact the insurance company and get a quote from a company for the damage. Manel got into his wheelchair and went with his friend to contact the boat yard to see if they could assess if there was any structural damage. As they went, our thoughts turned back to our own boat. We looked under our bed where the rudder meets the steering cables and saw that they were completely frayed and the whole area was covered in metal dust. A bolt and a disc were bent and dislodged from their positions. We had felt that our steering was very heavy, as we complained about when we crossed Biscay and had to hand steer the whole way, but we had been told that it was because of our new rudder stock and that it would eventually loosen up. Obviously something had gone wrong for the cables to have frayed so quickly.
So we have spent the week in Lagos in the channel, unable to even enter the marina, waiting to get our boat repaired and for our watermaker to be delivered. It will be very expensive because our boat will need to be towed as we have no steering. It will also need to be lifted out of the water as they need to dismantle the whole steering system which is connected to the rudder in order to investigate what went wrong. Our insurance should cover us for the damages to the other boat, but we’re not sure if it will cover our steering failures. This may bite us later on. Our insurance was already extremely hard to get because most English companies don’t cover boats for the Caribbean. Plus we were planning to cross the Atlantic with no previous offshore experience whatsoever. In fact we could only get one American company to insure us, at huge cost. I’m already dreading next year’s insurance quote and wondering whether we will even be able to get insurance at all now that we’ve had to make a claim. But, this is sailing and whilst we ‘knew’ that boats always have things going wrong with them that have to be fixed at great cost, we certainly didn’t expect quite so many things to have to be repaired so quickly into our journey.
The reaction of people when we tell them says it all. To our friends who have happened to inquire into how we are this week, the reaction has been ‘Oh My God, that’s awful’ or ‘Oh My God, that sounds so expensive’. The reaction of fellow sailors when we tell them on the other hand has been, ‘Oh My God, you were so lucky it happened in Lagos’. And this is true, Lagos is known for being one of the best places in Portugal to have boat repairs done. Other sailors know that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong and you have to accept it. We could have lost our steering out in the ocean. If that had happened, it wouldn’t have been a disaster, but it would have been very unpleasant. In that case we would have had to attach our emergency steering lever directly to the rudder under our bed. One person in the cockpit would have had to shout down the hatch which way to turn the lever while the person below levered the rudder to steer. Once near the coast we would have had to pay to be towed. We’re learning this fatalist attitude of sailors, to accept the things that go wrong are part and parcel of this incredible lifestyle and not to get upset about it. We will have to pay the repair bill and we’ll have to stop and work maybe sooner than we thought. But the starry skies, the sunrises, the dolphins that follow us, all of those things put these boat repairs into perspective.
There was no structural damage to Manel’s boat and he was able to leave only a day later than planned on his way to cross to the Canaries. He will get the cosmetic damage repaired when he’s back in his home port of Barcelona later in the year. He’s been sailing much longer than us and has the sailor’s fatalism down pat. As we apologised for the tenth time, he just smiled and said ‘that’s sailing’.
This week's Vlog.