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Becalmed Without an Engine

I sat in the cockpit watching dawn break and the sun gradually rising as the heat increased. Staying awake was becoming very difficult as my head continually nodded down, wakening myself up every time. Just before I woke Carita and went to bed, I had to stop the engine, and top up the oil. The boat was rolling heavily from side to side as I opened the engine compartment and leaned into it's fierce heat, trying to catch the boat when it was upright to do a proper check of the oil level. After what seemed like forever, I'd checked it, topped it up, and was back in the cockpit. I could hear my bed calling.

I turned the ignition key. Rather than being met with the sound of the engine starting, however, the only sound was a loud click. I tried again. Clack. Fuck. The starter motor seemed to have jammed. I turned all our battery power on, hit it with a hammer in the hope of unsticking it - but nothing worked. Clack. Clack. Clack.

We were out of sight of land and there was virtually no wind, but our only hope was to sail into a harbour. I pulled out the pilot book and all the information I had about the coastline and began looking for a safe harbour to head for. We needed somewhere that was reasonably close, but more importantly was large enough to sail into, anchor nearby, and big enough to have a marine mechanic. Garrucha appeared to be our best bet. We put up all the sail, the wind began to pick up, our speed increased, and we headed for the coast.

The entire east coast of Almeria is high and mountainous, and about five miles offshore we sailed into the wind shadow of the mountains and the breeze dropped off. Some large fishing boats were trawling nearby and one of them was heading our way. I held the genoa out by hand, trying to get the sail to fill with wind, but there was no hope as it flapped endlessly. The fishing boat was still heading for us, and, totally becalmed and unable to move, I began to worry. Normally, if a fishing boat is on a collision course with you, you get out of it's way fast. They're working hard and many of them don't see why they should detour around some arsehole in their way on a sailing boat, playing with his flapping sails. It's bows were cutting through the water, pointing straight at us as I grabbed the radio, about to call him on the vhf. By now they were so close I could clearly see the guy steering so I waved to him to get his attention. He returned the wave, and, twenty metres away from impact, thankfully changed his course to avoid us.

We were still alive but still becalmed as the boat rolled in the short Mediterranean swell. Every so often we would see a small gust of wind move across the water towards us and we'd try to catch it to move a little closer to the harbour. Getting close to the shore in conditions like these without an engine could well be dangerous, however. As long as we were in deep waters we were safe, but if the wind went calm when we were close to land, the swell and current could easily take us onto the rocks. By now we had a phone signal again and Carita called Garrucha marina to explain our situation and ask them for assistance when we were close. All we needed was for someone from the marina to be ready in a small boat to tow us into a berth. It wasn't yet an emergency, and there was no need to call the coastguard. They answered the phone and told her that they couldn't help, didn't have any space, and that we should try another marina about twenty miles up the coast.

There was no way that I was going to spend the rest of the day trying to coax the boat further up the coast and maybe be met with the same kind of reply. The swell was still too big to attempt to launch our own dinghy which would have been able to tow us, but if we couldn't get assistance from the marina then we could still attempt to sail close to Garrucha and anchor. First, though, I called Jorge in Ibiza. After a bit of chatting about how the sailing had been going, I mentioned that we had a small problem. Jorge is probably one of the most persuasive people I know, and, being Spanish as well, he told me he'd call Garrucha marina and talk to them. Five minutes later he called me back - they weren't answering the phone, but they'd probably just gone out for a coffee so he'd keep trying.

Time dragged on. The sun was hot, the boat was rolling and there was virtually no wind. We were now only two miles offshore and had begun heading back out to deeper water to avoid getting too close to the shore. Every so often a slight breeze would appear then it would be calm again. Then another one would appear from a totally different direction, meaning that we had to change the sail angles every time to take advantage of them. Carita had remained very calm, perhaps too calm, during all of this, but now I sensed that she realised just how risky things could become.

Finally, Jorge called. He'd been phoning the marina every five minutes for two hours until finally they'd answered the phone. After some persuasion they'd agreed to send someone out in a small boat to meet us when we got to the harbour entrance, and if anything went wrong we had permission to drop anchor there in an emergency. We turned around and headed for harbour, trying to catch every breeze we could.

After an hour or so we were closing in at a crawling 1.5 knots. After putting lots of fenders out around the boat we called the marina on the radio, as arranged, to tell them that we were close. Then we realised that it was now siesta time. Remarkably, however, we got an answer and the marina replied that they would be there to meet us at the entrance. Hoping there wouldn't be a strong current running past the harbour, we rounded the breakwater and, thankfully, were met by the harbourmaster in a dory, or small boat. He took our towline, asked what the problem was with the engine, and called a mechanic there and then to come down to look at it. Then he towed us onto the fuel pontoon and we tied up safely.

Three hours later the mechanic turned up. With quite a bit of trouble, he removed the started motor and took it away to work on it. A couple of hours after that, Carita and I were walking through the town when he called to say that he was inside the boat refitting the starter motor after getting it working again. Delighted, but also slightly worried that a stranger was wandering around inside the boat on his own, we hurried back just in time to start the engine and hear it running.

We spent a very appreciative night tied up to the fuel pontoon, had a good bottle of wine to celebrate being alive, and had a full night's sleep without getting up every three hours to go on watch.


Glad you made it in safely...rocks and no wind are a scary combination.

Sorry man, I should have been there.....

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