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  • Writer's picturetheblacksprayhood

Who deserves a kiss?

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

“They pushed us from side to side along a narrow rocky channel, each time coming to the other side just before we hit the sides. At one point they lost control and both men flew under our anchor at top speed. "

We were on a high after a week in picturesque Madeira, but were equally conscious that we only had a week left on our EU visas and needed to leave quite quickly if we wanted a quick rest in the Canary Islands before the week-long journey to Cape Verde. Sunday brought strong southerly winds, but Monday was looking like a fine day to leave. The winds were forecast to be a little light for sailing, but given the ticking clock on our visa, we were prepared to motor a bit in order to leave sooner. We checked a few things on the boat and then we found a problem.

A very unexpected problem. Our steering cables were fraying. You may remember that about a month ago our steering cables had frayed and we had crashed into another boat as we were entering Lagos Marina in Portugal. We had had our boat taken out of the water, the rudder refitted and brand new steering cables installed. Our wheel now spun freely and easily and we were delighted. We wouldn’t have to worry about it again for quite a while. Or so we thought. We were horrified when we discovered the day before we were due to leave Madeira that this problem that we thought had been solved had already reappeared. It seemed that a little too much of the end of the cable had been left on and it had basically sawed through some of the strands.

We spent a day being completely despondent. We felt under a lot of pressure. Madeira is a lovely place but it is a small place. We spoke to the resident part time chandlery (boat shop) manager, part time boat mechanic. He didn’t have any equipment on site and it would take at least two weeks for him to send off the cable to be swaged and sent back. We had a spare cable on board, but the end needed a metal sleeve put on it with a hydraulic press so it would fit in the narrow steering wheel compartment. Shackles and such like would not fit. We called every shipyard on the island and they were all too busy or wouldn’t deal with yachts. We were also conscious not only of our visa expiry date but also we didn’t want to be in Madeira into December. The marina suffers a lot of wake and the pontoons are very weak. Our pilot book detailed three consecutive years where our marina had been completely destroyed by storms coming in December. We did not want to be around if that were to happen again. On the other hand, the Canary Islands were very busy. One of the Australian boats had snapped their boom on the way from La Línea. Realising they could not get the job done in Madeira, they had almost immediately departed for Tenerife. However, we knew that they were still waiting for their work to be done.

The Canary Islands are unusually busy this year. Three Atlantic cruising rallies -two in November and one in January were meeting in Gran Canaria and Tenerife prior to departure. An extra one has been laid on because of the cancellation of last year’s rally due to Coronavirus. Plus all the individual people who had wanted to cross the Atlantic last year but had postponed it. Anyway, the marinas are heaving in the Canaries. We knew Tenerife would probably be too busy. We thought Lanzarote might be a bit quieter as at least the Atlantic rally boats don’t congregate there. We called all of the marinas and boatyards. They were all full, apart from maybe one and luckily their boatyard thought they could help us as long as we could stay in the marina as they had no space for our boat in the boatyard. The marina requested that we send an email to book a spot. But could we make it to Lanzarote with just our Hydrovane?

We went for a drink that evening with the other Australian couple who were still in Madeira. They are very experienced having been living full time on their boat for more than ten years. Jubilant from their day of sightseeing, our gloomy faces were probably not what they wanted to see that evening. However, they were very reassuring. They pointed out that the maritime authorities would definitely not cause us a problem if we had a genuine boat safety issue we needed to fix before heading out to sea. They told us not to worry at all about the visa issue. They then pointed out that the autopilot might well be attached directly to the quadrant which is attached to the rudder. Thus even if the cables were not attached, the autopilot should still be able to turn the rudder. This would give us a lot more options than just relying on the Hydrovane, which we are still learning how to use. They suggested we all leave on Wednesday when the wind would be a strong northerly so we could use the Hydrovane with more confidence and then anchor at Isla Graciosa, check the cables and then go to the marina in Lanzarote the next day.

We had emailed the marina but had no response. Still, we felt we had no choice, we had to leave. The mechanic had had a quick look at our cables and said he thought they would survive the two days to Lanzarote. The Australian boat would be around if we got into real difficulties too. The first day the winds were brisk and the sea was very choppy as we left the marina and headed past the Ilhas Desertas just south of Madeira. Unfortunately Chocolate Cat was seasick for the very first time and then spent the first couple of hours of the journey lying on the bedroom floor looking unhappy. We both took seasick pills and then luckily the sea state became more regular as we left the area around the islands and headed out into open ocean. We had a very fast sail that first day and night, doing mostly around seven knots. This enabled us to make good headway until Thursday when we knew the wind was going to drop. This would slow us down but also make using the Hydrovane more difficult. Sure enough we had to turn on the engine and turn on the autopilot. The autopilot wasn’t using the cables, but it was moving them. This unfortunately meant that when we checked the cables, which had remained in their taped up state on Wednesday, by Thursday they had completely worn through. We had no hand steering. This meant we would have to try and anchor under autopilot and then get a tow into a marina, if they even had a place.

We arrived at Isla Graciosa, which is just north of Lanzarote across a narrow strait. It only has around 700 residents and has a harsh beauty with a volcanic cone perfectly shaped on the left of its beach and the huge towering volcanic cliffs of larger Lanzarote just across the strait. It is a large enough anchoring spot, but we were disappointed to see that it was quite busy. Using the autopilot is fine when out at sea because you can make gradual course changes. You can only turn a maximum of 10 degrees at a time and wait for it to make the change in course. This is in contrast to hand steering where course changes are almost immediate and can be as sharp as you like. Using the autopilot to manoeuvre in a tight marina space for example would be impossible. Using it to anchor would be possible but still a challenge. We managed to anchor successfully and were very relieved. We now had phone signal and saw that the marina had responded. They had a place. I called them to confirm that our cables were now completely broken and we would definitely need a tow into the marina. We arranged it for 1.00pm the next day. We spent the night worrying about whether we could get out again without hitting any boats.

Unfortunately when we awoke, we saw that two more boats had arrived in the night. We got up early and planned how we would get out without hitting the boats that were surrounding us. We went through the rigmarole that is involved in bringing up our anchor chain - Luciano at the front having to jump down the hatch every 10 metres to stop the chain jamming. Eventually the anchor was free and Luciano gave me the signal. I reversed the boat a little. It spun as there was no control over the rudder, but it moved me away from the boats in front. Then when the boat was pointing at a gap in the boats, I put a burst of power into forward, switched on the autopilot and adjusted it and we headed out safely through the gap between the boats. I almost cried with relief. We gave each other a high five and then started worrying about whether the autopilot would fail on the way to Lanzarote.

We had to sail around the northern coast to the southern coast where the marina was. The wind was blowing us hard into the coast, so we had to keep our distance. But we were going like a rocket. We had the engine on and with just the genoa out we were making seven and a half to eight knots consistently. Knowing the wind was due to pick up later very strongly, which wouldn’t be good for our precarious marina entry, we kept the engine and genoa as they were to try and make it in good time. We arrived close to the marina and called the VHF. We didn’t want to get too close as we didn’t have much turning room with just the autopilot. They didn’t answer. We called on the phone. No answer. We did about three or four circles. On the VHF we also heard other boats trying to enter the marina with no response from the marina. We later found out their VHF radio wasn’t working. We eventually got through on the phone and were met by the marineros (marina workers) in their rib. If you thought we would be towed by an equal size boat, you wouldn’t be correct. Two marineros in a tiny dinghy put a rope around our bow cleat and then turned on the throttle on their outboard engine. They pushed us from side to side along a narrow rocky channel, each time coming to the other side just before we hit the sides. At one point they lost control and both men flew under our anchor at top speed. Luckily they were both unhurt and another marinero came to assist. We were led to a pontoon next to the fuel berth and tied up safe and sound.

We had made it. Our autopilot is amazing. Luciano is supposed to have given it a kiss as he promised (although he still hasn’t done it yet). It was a relief, but we reflected that at no point on this boat have we ever yet been in a life threatening situation. There were times when we had been overly stressed, but we did have three different back ups to help us steer if we were out at sea and the cables failed - the autopilot, the Hydrovane and our emergency tiller which is a piece of metal that you attach directly to the rudder shaft down below. We are going to get the boat yard to swage at least two spare cables for us so we can immediately replace it if it was to happen again. But we had been overly stressed, which wasn’t helpful to the situation. As one of the Australians told us. Do a temporary fix to a problem and then sleep on it and you will have a much better solution in the morning.

This week's Vlog.

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