by David Millner
The Editor's colourful diary of his cruise to the Mediterranean, beginning in Swansea on May 14th and ending 1502 miles later in Mar Menor, Spain.
In 1981 I was lucky to crew a Moody 30 from Dartmouth to Gibraltar so the Doctor owner could enjoy a five month sailing sabbatical. Two years later we sailed the AZAB race in the same boat finishing a creditable second place in class, ahead of many lighter club racers.
The Gibraltar trip had been an easy beam reach across Biscay, strong Northerly winds down the Portuguese Atlantic coast, calm off the Algarve, then the strong Levanter east wind through the Strait of Gibraltar. After plugging into the Levanter over a long ocean swell for some hours we obtained a fix with the Seafix handheld radio direction finder and decided to sail downwind to Cadiz until the Levanter blew itself out.
After thirty six hours we continued onto our destination in light winds arriving in the middle of the night, the bright flashing "GB" at the top of the Rock beckoning us, and proudly announcing the British presence on the Rock to ships and neighbouring Spaniards alike.
twenty years later...
Twenty years later the opportunity arose to skipper our Havcat 27 production catamaran along a similar route, this time from Swansea to SE Spain. Apataki weighs just 2000 kg empty and without daggerboards in place. In the intervening years I have sailed various multihulls for short distances off the south Coast and in the Eastern Mediterranean, crewed on cross channel trips and a delivery from Scotland to Devon. I became confident in astro navigation on the Azores trip but have not practised it since. New fangled things like GPS and Navtex had arrived and I had had no contact with them. It was time to put the knowledge of thirty two years of sailing to the test, and skipper boat and crew safely to the waiting blue waters of the Mediterranean.
shopping list grew
The trip was first and foremost not to be a race against deadlines, probably the biggest cause of accidents at sea. We also wanted to experience places on the route. Planning and safety considerations were fundamental. Apataki was well looked after by previous owner Malcolm Ratcliffe, and indeed this fact was part of the decision to buy her. She was well equipped with recent sails, autopilot, copperbot antifouling etc. but the shopping list for the trip soon grew after discussion with former MOCRA safety officer Bill Bailey and revisiting the MOCRA Safety at Sea Recommendations.
Extra anchor, warp and chain and battery power were high on the list, especially having experienced battery failure during the AZAB. GPS was a must to take away the worry of knowing our exact location, and Navtex to receive local weather information once out of BBC range. We also added a second hand EPIRB, a Subrella hull patch in case of debris collision, extra flares, a hand held VHF radio, a Plastimo radar reflector, a safety line, two new halyards, and charts and pilots to Gibraltar, as we planned to leave the boat for a few weeks in the Algarve. The South Biscay pilot was purchased to ensure that we would not be blown into the Bay, a sacrifice to the wind God. Last but not least Apataki acquired a 12 parachute anchor to deploy from the bows in extreme conditions. The entourage includes swivel, rode bag, 100m rode, chain and bridle. We spent many hours trying to picture how to set it up and use it.
The insurance company insisted on a survey before we undertook the trip which did not add much to the information we had gathered from other sources. Underwriters also required three people on board across Biscay. Passage reports from sailing magazines and books were also scoured for tips. The Bristol Channel is not easy to leave with its strong currents, prevailing SW winds and 110 miles to Lands End with few places to shelter.
setting off to Padstow
Eventually after much help from Malcolm, Lynda and I met up with Bob at Swansea Bus Station and on 18 May set off across a calm sea with light winds towards Padstow. We had managed to buy a Bristol Channel chart in a Swansea chandlers, but the one gap in our portfolio was a few miles from south of Bull Point, to north of Padstow. From Padstow we had charts to Gibraltar, both taking in NW France, and for going straight for Spain. It would not be a problem as we would see Hartland Point to our East, and Lundy Island to our west.
But life is not so simple. Before seeing either of these two landmarks we ran into fog with visibility of about 100 metres. Whist in the fog the starboard rudder blade kicked up and we had our first opportunity to lift it clear of the stock to free a sheet of black plastic. As a precaution we called the Coastguard to confirm that our course would not take us too close to the two hazards, and Milford Haven requested that we reported in every half hour to report our position. We gave them regular information about local visibility. Finally we were passed onto Falmouth Coastguard who relaxed this obligation to hourly until finally advising them at 2300 that we were anchored in off Padstow.
The next morning we went ashore for petrol to find that Padstow Harbour Master will take any cans left near the office to the not so nearby petrol station and add the cost to the harbour dues. These were the same whether anchored off, or tied up in the sheltered tidal harbour where the smell of fish and chips ruled. We acquired three extra gallon containers made by TetraPak, which proved to have inadequate seals so left our hands covered in petrol when topping up the main tank at sea. The forecast was two days of SW 5 so we planned to stay anyway to do the myriad of small jobs before hitting serious weather. It was an opportunity to plug the laptop computer into the Harbourmasters phone socket and check e-mails. This being a local call the assistant thought no charge was necessary. In fact £3 was added to the bill. At least the berthing charges were reasonable.
Being in the harbour we were a public spectacle and soon a Dart 18 owner came by wanting to know all about offshore catamarans. He offered his workshop facilities and donated a hacksaw and a piece of plywood which was to find a number of uses then and later. He also took the skipper by car to nearby Wadebridge to buy electrical connectors unavailable in Padstow, and to Tesco for provisions. John and wife Ginny joined us later for drinks and supper in the cockpit.
leaving Padstow for the Scillies
Day 4 had certainly not dawned when we left Padstow harbour at 0330 while the lock gates were open and motored out into the nasty residue of NW seas and wind up the estuary and over the bar and beyond. Soon the Avon dinghy lashed on the foredeck netting complete with floorboards became a danger as the seas piled into it. I donned harness and spent probably half an hour removing the boards and securing it upside down, constantly being thrown around and doused in the seas. Eventually we could clear Trevose Head so bore away onto a more comfortable course towards the Isles of Scilly heavily reefed. Bob succumbed to seasickness and I needed to sit quietly for a while before feeling better. It was so quiet that Lynda called up from below fearing we had both gone overboard. Down below the constant pounding of seas against the bridgedeck allowed no comfort or quiet. Lynda could not come on deck and Bob soon went below to sleep and warm up, occasionally popping up to tweak the sails before returning to his bunk.
By noon the wind and seas had eased so I threw out the reefs. The forecast was good for the rest of the day. By mid afternoon though wind and seas built against us and we motored sailed towards Scilly, again lifting water over the decks. Unfortunately now a real problem was revealed as solid seas reached the sliding perspex hatches over the twin companionways and with no deflectors landed onto the cooker and galley sole to starboard, and the chart table and nav area sole in the port hull. I used the mobile phone to arrange for a boatbuider on Bryher to do some corrective work so we altered course for that island.
As soon as we were anchored off Bryher Bob announced that he would not continue across Biscay with us as he did not wish to suffer days of seasickness, so we made arrangements to leave Apataki with catamaran builder Keith Bennett on Bryher for hatch garages to be built. The cockpit drain holes kept the cockpit wet in any seaway so Keith also fitted deflectors underneath. In following seas we later used wine corks and wooden bungs in the holes which took the seas. Finally we asked Steve at Bryher Marine Engineering to connect up the two batteries, switch and the replacement solar panel. Our reserve crew was contacted and we rescheduled a restart around 2 July when his teaching commitments finished.
On 21 May we all returned to the mainland and everyday life. We booked the helicopter flights to Scilly for 2 July and two days earlier Bill advised that his commitments were too great and he would have to decline. We invited Keith Bennetts 24 year old son Daniel to join us. Two years earlier he had lost the lower part of one leg below the knee in a motor accident with a kangaroo in Australia. After a long period of recuperation Daniel was now following his fathers footsteps and had plenty of experience of handling catamarans under power. Daniel was quick to accept but had to apply for a replacement passport as he could not find his.
meanwhile, my crime writer cousin dies
Meanwhile we knew that my crime writer cousin was missing despite long searches by Police and locals in Herefordshire. Two days after our return to the boat news came that her body was found so we had to return to the mainland to deal with the estate and attend the funeral. All the time we watched the weather looking for the right five day conditions to reach Spain. Being so far west in Bryher we did not really want to lose westing by sailing to France. We phoned the Marinecall line a number of times, the result of each call requiring the return helicopter flight to be put back two or three days.
departing the Scillies
Eventually an Azores High was becoming established and we flew to Scilly on 23 July, and set off with Daniel at 0530 on the following morning. Light variable winds lay ahead with stronger favourable winds beyond. We just had to find them, sailing as much as possible, as we had just ten gallons of petrol for our 9.9hp Honda outboard to which we had fitted an Ecoflow fuel conditioner. This allowed us at 0.6 gallons an hour about 17 hours or 102 miles. Spain was over four hundred miles away. A glassy swell with little wind persisted as we motored or sailed until the low islands fell below the horizon astern. By now I was becoming reasonably competent with the GPS which we used cautiously, recording the position each hour on our passage working sheets so I could write up the log book cleanly later. The GPS kindly advised the distance to our first waypoint, 420 miles from Scilly to Camarinas and the course to steer.
At 2025 the first dolphins were sighted and swam between the hulls to our great delight. Half an hour later we had to lift the starboard rudder to clear the second plastic bag of the day from it. Before dark we plugged the spotlight in to the new socket to try it. It would be useful to shine on the sails to aid being seen by night. Immediately the fuse blew and the autopilot sharing the circuit locked on course. We robbed another circuit of a fuse to keep the autopilot on duty. After dark the forecast easterly wind came up and we were making between 4.5 and 6 knots until the calm, grey dawn. The pattern for the second day was similar with some sailing and some motoring in light variable wind. Late afternoon brought five common dolphins, then a couple of hours later about ten, jumping and diving all around. Soon we were near to a shoal of jumping fish, pilchard / sardine?
By 2300 we were becalmed with mist patches and three fishing boats at a safe distance around us. We had motored a total of fifteen hours but consumption was better then expected. We still had 284 miles to go to Camarinas. Was the gamble of using fuel to reach the wind going to pay off?. We could not afford to use more yet. So the autopilot was switched off and we practised our light weather helming skills just to keep water moving past the rudders. We made six miles in six hours. Shoals of fish were just near the boat and they would all jump and splash back into the water when a torch was shone upon them.
New wind came at 0650 on the third day of the passage, followed by an hour of torrential rain. Having no weather protection on deck the umbrella brought along in case of hot sun further south came in handy. The day brought more dolphins, on one occasion feeding on a fish shoal by diving in to the centre, stunning some fish and splitting the shoal. The stunned fish were soon consumed by the dolphins or nearby birds. At 1140 four pilot whales swam briefly alongside and between the bows. Three hours later the first minke whale was spotted. It blew then surfaced. By midnight the continental shelf was astern and the chart showed 4330m depth.
The days run was just 65 miles but the engine had only been used for half an hour. The cabaret started up in earnest just after midnight as torpedoes of light came from all angles towards Apataki as she sailed slowly south at about 3 knots. I remembered these clearly from my previous trip, but the first time had been scary. Of course the dolphins just churned up the micro-organisms creating what we wrongly call phosphorescence. Five fishing boats were close by and one passed close astern. We had discussed altering ships time to Spanish time as the half way mark approached, but decided to wait. However Daniels alarm went off at 0200 instead of 0300 as he had changed his watch. He was pleased to accept the offer of the extra hour in his bunk! He was rewarded at 0545 when three Minke whales swam across the bows just 50m ahead. Sailing in the light winds had been made difficult with the swell, but by mid morning we were again becalmed. We watched wind ripples on water some distance away and motored for fourteen minutes to get into that wind.
At 1440 the main was lowered and we set up the "tradewind" rig of Sobstad Genesis genoa, and loose luffed terylene genoa, each with restrainers fitted. We pulled away on course at about one knot and held the rig for 26 hours by which time we were touching over ten knots with large following seas. We were not to raise the main again until thirteen days later off the Eastern Algarve.
After a night with clear sky, many stars, a low cheese coloured moon and cross seas on a different heading we faced the danger of modern commercial shipping. At 0720 we were on a reciprocal course with FICUS (Monrovia) which failed to respond to our calls on Ch 13 or 16, then the same happened again at 0825 when YONG HUAN (Hong Kong) did the same. Neither were keeping visual or radio watch, and we were obliged to alter course for each of the rogues in turn to avoid collision. By now through the Navtex, Meteo France, was warning of NE7 near La Coruna.
The pilot book told of the dangers of the Galician coast where the ocean shelves from 4000m to 50m depth in just thirty miles. NE was not a normal quarter for the time of year and many of the potential anchorages within the Galician Rias would have been uncomfortable with swell in these conditions. La Coruna was dismissed, Camarinas also, especially as the nearest petrol was to be found seven kilometres away. In fact the sensible decision was to get past Cape Finisterre, and indeed to go outside the shipping separation zones to avoid wild conditions. The decision was made to hold the comfortable, balanced tradewind rig until 10 degrees West, then run down 10W until the separation zone was cleared then head for Bayona, just north of the Portuguese border.
By 1615 Apataki was pressed with double genoa canvas and it was time to reduce sail. The headsail rig however was always giving lift to the bows, whereas overpower in the main would have forced the bows down, and wind could not have been dumped easily. We had almost reached 10 West so Daniel went forward to bag the loose luff genoa, and we hardened up onto the south heading. Immediately Apataki felt less comfortable as she learned the new pattern of quarter seas. At 2125 the three crew sat in the relatively sheltered forward cockpit as darkness approached. "Hasn't George done well", said the skipper. A moment later Apataki luffed up, and the skipper dived aft to grab the helm and pull the boat back onto course. The autopilot hung just clear of the water attached only by the electric cable. In the heavy conditions Lynda would have been unable to steer so it was to be one hour on, one hour off during the night. Daniel took the helm to become familiar with the seas while it was still possible to see them. Soon it became dark and the moon aided the task of keeping roughly on course, as the quartering seas worked against the helmsman. It put less pressure on the steering system by going with the seas then gently coming back on course. Cloud obscured the moon before long and each helmsman worked hard, an hour at a time, while the off-watch man sat forward in the inner cockpit, dozing and receiving regular dousings of saltwater.
spanish coast in sight
Eventually daylight came by which time Apataki was clear of the separation zones and was being sailed closer to the wind to claw towards the Spanish coast. She was now beam on to the 3m and 4m seas. This was sailing in the mountains. From peak to trough to peak, some waves lifting each hull and passing by, some breaking just before Apataki, sending white water beneath the hulls, and some breaking against the port side, either pouring water across the whole boat, or slamming the whole boat sideways. The skill was to judge how each wave would break, and to steer to minimise impact. From a peak the helmsman could bear up a little to accelerate down the back of the wave. From the trough he could also bear up to present a better angle into a breaking wave. All the time Apataki made five or six knots with less than two sq.m of headsail. This was an exciting ride.
Then from ahead on the starboard side came the dolphins. The sun was struggling through the low visibility. For the first time the dolphins were seen in big seas, leaping right through the waves. As soon as they came, they were gone. For some hours the conditions remained the same. A small freighter VERA overtook close on our port side, the waves rolling across her deck. Gradually the seas abated, the wind eased, the sky cleared and Apataki could carry more sail. Indeed by 1825 when land was sighted for the first time in five and a half days, a light head wind came up and from 1900 we motored the last ten miles to Bayona, anchoring after dark off the town of Panjon.
Next morning we rowed ashore to the Club Nautico Panjon, which the pilot book said had showers. We were offered a cold shower in the dinghy park! After cerveza and tapas in a nearby bar we motored across the bay to the Monte Real Club de Yates at Bayona town, right under a fortified hill. We fuelled and watered and were allocated a mooring as our beam precluded us from the last pontoon berth available between a French yacht which could have moved up to make space, and a Falmouth registered yacht which was tight to its neighbour. We reflected that we had not sighted a single yacht at sea between Bryher and Bayona.
After the light wind start, the many hours of NE winds ensured that we reached Bayona with a fuel reserve of about three gallons. Thus we had consumed seven gallons in seventeen and three-quarter hours of motoring, using only an amazing 0.4 gallons per hour with the little Ecoflow unit fitted. Malcolm had reported 0.6 g/h as normal. We had motored just 13.1% of the passage time. Hot showers, fresh provisions and eating ashore were appreciated by the crew. Arrangements were made to get Daniel back to England then we were all free to cruise the offshore Islas Cies, with their high cliffs and white beaches. After sailing back from the Islands in thick fog we spent a last day at Bayona.
Lynda discovered an unusual Spanish habit, which was also seen further south. A number of women take showers in bikinis then put outer clothes over the wet suit! The best meal of the whole trip was enjoyed at a restaurant table in a back street of the old town. Early next morning we took Daniel to Santiago airport and were pleased to return to the peace and tranquillity of life aboard, after the traffic jams of Vigo. We had sailed 500 miles since Bryher, and a total of 697 since leaving Swansea. Portugal, SW Spain and Gibraltar awaited before Apataki's hulls would slice the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Lynda was now familiar with Apataki and the sea. I had realised a longstanding ambition of skippering a long ocean passage. We had about a thousand miles ahead of us and a small catamaran that had proved her ability to look after us.
starfish and sunfish (left)
Apataki left Bayona once crewman Daniel had been driven to the airport and the hire car could be returned after Siesta time. Now Lynda and I were on our own aboard Apataki for the first time. Daniels last job had been the making of a new base to mount the Navico Tillerpilot. We found that there was a Navico agent in nearby Vigo, but it seemed they carry little stock and the steel mounting cup we needed would have to be sent from Alicante, where we had first telephoned. We did not want to waste time so merely drilled through the four new layers of plywood and that temporary arrangement is still good today. We motored back to the nearby Isla San Martin and anchored again off a white sandy beach for the night. Many starfish could be seen on the sandy bottom, slowly moving across the sand. The forecast was W3-4 becoming N3.
heading for Portugal
Next morning, August 4, we weighed anchor at 0730 and motored to the Atlantic side of the small island and headed south for Portugal. By 0845 the twin genoa rig was again pushing Apataki south. Each day early calm was replaced by wind reaching N6 7 by lunchtime. At 0920 we called up the Prout 38 catamaran sailing inshore and astern of us under spinnaker. Kouba II replied and we arranged to meet up at Viana do Castelo later. By 1020 we had been joined by about twenty playful dolphins and had all or part of this company for a full hour and a half. At 1115 the Spanish courtesy flag was lowered, and replaced by the Portuguese one. Kouba II had crept past us inshore over the thirty mile passage and entered Viana about half an hour ahead of Apataki.
At 1350 we put the engine on and motored into the harbour against very strong wind. The helpful marina employee waited with us while another Prout 38, Saro Dato followed almost an hour later, and we were berthed alongside her, bows to the pontoon. The berth without water or electricity cost £9. Soon we were sandwiched by later arrivals. We met Pat & Liz Bryant (Kouba II) and their friends Alfred and Patricia Smallbone (Saro Data). Both boats were cruising south slowly for a transatlantic rally. The marina were overwhelmed by three catamarans arriving on the same day. Saro Dato, like Apataki was equipped with a parachute sea anchor. Neither Prout boat had seen dolphins across Biscay, nor down the Atlantic coast. This could have been in part due to the crews being so remote from the elements, behind spray screens and windows. On Apataki we were close to the elements.
The following morning we extricated ourselves from the sandwich of boats at 0730, waived off by Alfred and Patricia, and motored out to sea in flat calm conditions. Again the twin genoas were carried for a while, then one was lowered to enable a small point to be cleared. The temperature felt cold as the wind increased. Careful lookout was needed for fishing pots, often with small black floats which could not be seen in the seas until almost upon them. We did not want to get rudders or daggerboards caught up in fishing equipment. We had read of a yacht suffering that fate and needing outside assistance to be freed.
The plan was to sail up the Douro River to Porto if conditions were calm enough, as the mouth has a shallow bar, and is dangerous in strong winds. In the event, the wind was too strong in my opinion so we gave a wide berth to a prohibited zone offshore the Lexioes oil terminal and entered Lexioes harbour at 1340, just like the previous day motoring in against a force 7 wind. Going alongside the reception berth in the marina was easy. The office allocated a berth (£10) which had the full force of the wind blowing across it, and sent the elderly berthing man to stand at the berth and take the lines. This was the day that the outboard was kicking up in reverse causing some difficulty manoeuvring in the strong winds. Apataki was taken right out of the marina entrance within the commercial harbour, turned round and brought in forward, causing anxiety but no contact with the marina walls. Approaching the berth at enough speed to turn in at right angles and not be blown away was the next task, knowing that reverse was a problem to stop. The bow line was thrown to the marina guy to secure round a cleat so he could then take the stern line. However he just stood there with the bow line and we had no alternative but to throw him the stern line also. He braced himself, taking the full weight of the boat in the cross wind, while the boat was too far into the berth for us to jump ashore. Fortunately another boat owner appeared and helped to secure us.
The wind was so strong during the afternoon that it was uncomfortable to be in the cockpit, and the idea of the local bus to Porto did not appeal either in the wild conditions. The afternoon was therefore spent below decks, apart from a walk to the showers, and just beyond the marina entrance. The marina contained many boats in transit, but it occurred to us as we were the only transit boat in our row in the marina that Apataki at 8.3m was much shorter in length than all of the others at 11m or more. In fact on the whole trip we did not see any other transiting boat so small. The catamaran configuration however ensured broach free comfortable downwind sailing in many sea conditions, which the many larger monohulls would not have enjoyed.
In a Bayona chandlers a Hella insulated coolbox was purchased at great expense to run off the battery through the new cigar lighter socket, which was fitted to charge our three mobile phones. The mobile phone is of course another modern safety aid in coastal waters. We carry no fridge but use cheap coolboxes with freezer blocks, which most marinas allowed us to leave overnight in their freezers to top up. One and a half hours switched on without the engine running almost drained a battery.
The morning of 6 August again started calm so we left the marina and harbour without difficulty. Behind fog enveloped the harbour and soon visibility was down to 50m. For a couple of hours the fog persisted and engines could be heard around. By 1100 the fog had lifted, and an hour later the seas were increasing. After two short passages double handed the aim was to use the strong northerlies and get south. There were a number of ports ahead if we felt the need to put in. By 1345 dolphins returned as Apataki put the miles under her keels. By now the GPS and Navtex were becoming more familiar and providing regular useful data, as well as giving every navigational warning from the Dutch coastguard and North Sea Oilfields! It was set to "automatic receive" from stations in range.
The afternoon was again one of strong wind, carrying reefed genoa. By evening the wind was lighter and the second genoa could again be carried. After midnight the sky was clear with small clouds scudding past the moon. The engine was used for part of the night for progress and to recharge the drained battery. We passed inside Isla da Berlenga after midnight. Had we arrived in daylight I would have been tempted to anchor in a south facing bay, just for the love of visiting islands.
grey Atlantic fog and viscious gusts
By 0900 there was grey Atlantic fog. An hour and a half later off Cabo Roca we were hit by viscious gusts and reefed down to minimal sail. The log was showing11.2 knots and under reads by about 20%. On Bryher the impeller was replaced by the plug as Apataki sat without keels on the sand. The impeller was returned to its working position the night before we sailed, but grossly under-read across Biscay. At Islas Cies a swim found that it was not fully into its tube, so had responded to an eddy instead of the full water flow. Now rectified it was better but not correct. We were grateful for the lack of pressing mainsail and the ease of reefing when overpressed. Apataki felt so safe under just one or two square metres of headsail.
The next headland, Cabo Raso is the big headland for the Tagus estuary with the towns of Cascais and Estoril nearby, and the pilot warned of frequent unpleasant conditions. The Portuguese coast was not a friendly place to be. Looking back there was a line of cloud extending out to sea from the 500m high ground inland of Cabo Roca. Was it a front moving up on us? It seemed ominous. We were safe and rested and had no desire to linger. We set waypoint and course for the next big headland, Cabo de Sao Vincente. I recalled rounding it in large seas, well offshore during the night twenty years earlier. The afternoon gave us large confused seas, but the miles were falling astern. We were again on a dead run with 2m seas. The wind decreased into the evening and the second genoa went up. The seas became sloppy, and a number of fishing boats had to be avoided. No doubt many fishing floats passed dangerously close. We only knew of the ones we could see. The moon lit the eerie scene as the light of Sao Vincente came closer.
past the Algarve
At 0350 the second genoa was dropped and Apataki was gybed. A mile from the headland the wind picked up considerably and still less sail was needed. Unusually the reefing line was taut and would not budge. The light of a small fishing boat was ahead and then disappeared. Apataki was hurtling at ten knots towards an unlit open boat. The light returned, then went. The genoa would not reef. Where was the unlit boat? I put Apataki on a more southerly course and went onto the foredeck to sort out the problem, which was caused by the gybe. The second headsail halyard had to be moved, then the reef could be taken in. The lesser but more southerly headland of Punta de Sagres had also to be cleared. Naively I expected the wind to be less in the shelter of the south coast. I was wrong. I could not get Apataki to steer a course for Lagos and put on the engine to avoid being blown away from the destination. For three hours Apataki clawed the twelve miles towards the Lagos waypoint. Eventually it felt as if progress was being made, and the sea became calmer over the last two miles. The sun warmed up and the breeze died as Apataki motored past the sandstone cliffs and stacks of the Algarve tourist brochures.
At 0836 we tied alongside a British yacht on the reception pontoon of Lagos Marina. We had covered 278 miles in difficult conditions in 49 hours. It was our first night passage together. We were proud to have traversed the Atlantic coast and to have reached the Algarve. We checked in to the marina, had showers, and used the washing machines once the marina staff had finished washing all the sheets and towels from the letting apartments. We had visited Lagos by car in January and had not liked the place. Now without the hassle of parking and traffic we found a lovely old town, and an efficient, if expensive modern marina (£21). The last available table for dinner in an excellent backstreet restaurant offering local Portuguese fayre was an added bonus.
The plan for the following day was to go just four miles to the estuary of Alvor, a natural and unspoiled place, after the concrete of Lagos Marina. It was early afternoon before we were ready and the strong wind again made life difficult. Attempts to leave the berth failed and eventually with the help of another yachtsman and taking a long line across the marina we were able to leave, and the pedestrian bridge was raised to let us out. The anchor warp strained in the N7-8 until the wind eased in the evening.
Next morning we motored out in flat calm and we experienced the first day of light variable winds and warm Algarve sunbathing conditions at sea. By mid afternoon we were entering the shallow estuary waters off Faro, with the island of Culatra on our starboard side. I had read about Culatra being a paradise for multihulls and have a contact in nearby Olhao, who knows someone who does yacht guardianage. The plan therefore was to interrupt the trip here, with someone keeping an eye on the boat at anchor, or on a mooring. We could then return, enjoy the waters for a couple of weeks, then continue to the Med. This plan was conceived with the idea that we would have arrived in May or early June. After our various delays in leaving UK it was now August. Olhao, which had appealed to us in January even in rain, now held little appeal full of tourists, fishing boats which motored right past us with outboard on full throttle, a dredger working near where the pilot says to anchor, etc. We tied five petrol cans together and went ashore in the dinghy. The petrol station was about three hundred metres from the steps. This seemed a long way back when the cans were full.
On returning to Apataki the support boat from the dredger ushered us and four other yachts away to give the dredger more room to turn. The pilot book had the answer to this stating that the far side of the entrance to the large fishing harbour was a quieter place to anchor away from the wash of the fishing boats. We followed a Dutch yacht and anchored just off a wall, above which was effectively a scrapyard. We soon realised that we were off another main channel as double decker ferries and speedboats all gave their wash. We had promised ourselves another meal ashore and planned to use our remaining escudos as there were many reasons to abandon the original plan to leave Apataki here. The long ride in the dinghy was also subject to wake as various boats rushed close to us having no regard to our low freeboard or safety. The meal was good and we returned to Apataki in the darkness.
returning to Spanish waters
After seven days passing through Portuguese waters and the crew were ready to return to Spanish waters. Portuguese Monsanto Radio had given us regular weather forecasts on the Navtex, but Spanish stations remained silent. So on Saturday 11 August we motored out of the inshore channels and pointed the bows towards Cabo Trafalgar. Monsantos forecast was for west quadrant winds F3 to the Spanish border. Split Radio gave us a detailed forecast for the Adriatic. What would happen in between?
At 0911 the entrance was abeam and within ten minutes there were dolphins everywhere in a 200m circle. We motor sailed or sailed in light winds throughout the day. By mid afternoon the umbrella was necessary as the sails gave little shade on the southeasterly course. A black deck shower bag was purchased in England and for the first time had sat in the sun all day heating the contents. A hot refreshing shower was enjoyed from under the boom in the cockpit, with the added benefit of cleaning any salt from the cockpit sole. By 1900 a southeasterly swell made sailing difficult with both sails slatting so we motored slowly into the swell, having an uncomfortable evening and night. The swell told of some weather somewhere ahead but I did not grasp what was happening. It was of course the repeat of the 1981 trip, the Levanter blowing through the Strait of Gibraltar.
By midnight the orange glow over Cadiz, thirty miles away was visible. Five shooting stars were seen within an hour. At 0130 the Tillerpilot failed to respond so for the second time on the trip it was necessary to steer by hand. There was still no forecast for Spanish waters. Trafalgar, scene of Nelsons great battle, grew nearer. It is a low headland with much offlying shoal water. The Navtex reported various boats adrift in the waters ahead, illegal immigrants from Morocco. The Spanish Guadia Civil (police) and an orange naval patrol boat both inspected Apataki closely before giving cheery waves once the Red Ensign was seen. We navigated with care avoiding the shallow waters off Trafalgar. By 1100 the full force of the Levanter was felt. Apataki struggled to claw past the lighthouse with the help of the engine.
Our goal, Barbate, lay just across the bay past Trafalgar, and eventually the seas became easier as we freed off towards the large concrete harbour. Two "marineros" took the lines at the reception pontoon at the marina. I was ushered to the office even before taking off salt encrusted waterproofs and completed the formalities. It was Sunday and no English was spoken (although the weekday office staff could speak some English). The berth was allocated and we motored across in the strong wind to be met by both marineros, and a policeman, and Apataki was soon safely secured in her berth. Barbate marina has very wide berths, and here we did feel that it was unnecessary that the multihull surcharge of 50% was applied. Even with this the cost per night was £17 or £13 depending on who calculated the fees. A number of yachts had been storm bound here and unable to head East for two or three days.
The forecast for the next day was little better so we decided to take a full rest day. Only now did we receive a Navtex forecast from the Spanish Met. Institute. The lay day enabled many jobs to be done, including renewing many patches on the old Avon dinghy. We also met Angel and his daughter Fatima. Angel was interested in catamarans, but owned a narrow 19m monohull designed by the late Eric Tabarly, which he lives aboard and takes day charters. We donated a 2001 Multihull Yearbook to him, and later he offered to take me to Barbate town, as he needed provisions. We met at his ancient Land Rover. I sat in the front with two aluminium poles between me and the door. Fatima and a lady from the next yacht sat in the back.
Three hours later we returned to the marina after an adventure, consisting visits to an ATM, upholsterer, a seafood shop, a 100 peseta shop and finally a supermarket. The resulting purchases were lowered to the pontoon on a harness safety line! The Navtex brought disturbing news. A Dazcat 15 catamaran with no people on board was reported to be a hazard to shipping near the Azores. I did not like to think it could be Mike Butterfields racing boat, Dazzler, but that was confirmed later. They had been caught with a sudden increase of wind from 5knots to 40knots and could not free the spinnaker in time to prevent a capsize. Other report of yachts drifting or overdue sent a shiver down the spine.
bound for Gibraltar
By Tuesday the Levanter had blown out so we left Barbate bound for Gibraltar. Apataki was soon sailing well, close hauled on starboard towards the windsurfers paradise of Tarifa. It was important to use the tidal streams, so reluctantly the engine went on also. Speed over the ground by 1230 was 8 knots as the current swept past sleeping Tarifa (not a windsurfer to be seen in the light wind) and on towards Gibraltar. Tarifa Radio gave weather and navigational information and Lloyds reporting station at Gibraltar quizzed each merchant ship in turn. The promised westerly started to come in and the last few miles were downwind.
Dolphins greeted us in the Gibraltar Bay, and by calling ahead on VHF, we secured a wall to lie alongside for the night at the newest, Queensway Quay Marina. The multihull surcharge was not made so we paid £6.95 for the night. By comparison, the taxi back from Safeway the next morning cost £3. The various British pub food menus did not excite so we spent the evening in the tiny Murphys Irish bar, where the atmosphere was electric, and the average pepper steak cost under £4. We had charts and pilot to Gibraltar, but found a small chandlery near Queensway Quay Marina with a stack of second hand charts, covering part off the route ahead. One new chart was purchased at Sheppards Marina, a mile away. We were free to leave and once outside the shelter of the harbour we felt the full force of the now established westerly.
We motored past a couple of anchored ships before being clear enough from land to put a scrap of genoa up. Not far into the bay was a monohull under full sail. It must be French, I said. Soon they were in a mess trying to reduce sail. We soon cleared Europa Point and were in the Mediterranean. We had to avoid six identical Dubai tankers anchored east of the Rock then had clear water ahead. We sailed into the bay to glimpse the familiar Costa del Sol coast.
This was not the best point of sailing, or the desired course so the coast receded into the distance as we sailed East. The seas were disturbed and quartering, and soon a couple broke over Lynda who was sunbathing in the cockpit. We had planned to sail to Almerimar, which has a reputation for overwintering liveaboards, also for strong winds trapping boats in there. With the favourable wind, even with uncomfortable seas, we decided to continue on to a NE facing bay past Cabo de Gata, a national park area. The liner Oriana passed close on our port side, westbound, at 1715 and failed to respond to our VHF call. I still wished to know whether the cheap Plastimo radar reflector could be seen on a ships radar. I was still not to find out.
One ship out of four radioed during the trip. The radio operator thought we were eight miles away. At most we were a mile, so we did not feel confident in the reflector. The larger waves were slewing Apataki round. At 1900 we saw dolphins again, this time jumping clear of the water. They were actually tuna / tunny fish, and how spectacular. At various times on the trip we also saw flying fish but never experienced receiving them on deck. By midnight we were well reefed, under headsail only, the sterns lifting to breaking seas. Heavy winds and seas continued through the night and it was not until 0800 that we could again raise the second genoa and goosewing.
A mix of sailing and motoring followed. At 1540 we sighted the Almeria Morocco ferry, and at 1730, Cabo de Gata. We took another warm deck shower, and motored the last few miles up the coast catching a Dutch trimaran as we came into Genoves Bay to see the coloured rocks of the park in the late evening light. At Genoves the echo sounder failed to give a reading. Over the whole trip it had worked well in under 10m, but failed to read in deeper water. Now the old leadline came into its own. How many yachts carry one these days? With a W7 forecast we double checked that the anchor was holding, before darkness fell. We had sailed right past the busy Costa del Sol without stopping. We felt we were nearly home.
our local port of Garrucha
We woke early on Friday 17 August to an uncomfortable swell from the NE so immediately weighed anchor and motored up the coast past the tall cliffs. We alternatively sailed close hauled, or motor sailed close to the spectacular coast of the Park, passing Carboneras, then Mojacar Playa. We drifted along having lunch, then the afternoon breeze set in. In a bout of euphoria, Lynda took the helm and freesailed in the bay, before we entered our local port of Garrucha.
We had already established through a local friend that the marina had no space for visitors, (certainly no English spoken here), so we tucked Apataki away by anchoring at the northern end of the harbour, clear of the fairway used by the ships which regularly take the local gypsum across the world. We were 20m from the fairground, but did not plan to sleep aboard. We took a taxi to our apartment with the excess equipment off the boat, caught up with post and had a swim. On Sunday morning we set off again for the final two day sails, in light summer conditions, firstly to Mazarron, where we freed a jammed centreboard.
Next day we passed spectacular high cliffs either side of Cartagena, scene of another of Nelsons sea battles, and a naval port and oil terminal. An enjoyable beat up the coast followed before rounding Pta. Palos to Los Nietos, on the Mar Menor, the inland sea south of Alicante, the shallow waters of which were full of non stinging orange jellyfish. On Tuesday morning we tied alongside a Telstar 35 trimaran, and prepared to leave Apataki the following morning.
The statistics since Swansea were 1502 miles, 9 nights at sea, 6 nights in marinas, 2 nights on moorings, 4 nights in harbours, otherwise anchored at night. The trip started on 14 May, arriving 21 August, but from 20 May to 24 July Apataki was beached to four anchors at Bryher. Until Los Nietos we did not use the Mediterranean style of mooring fore and aft to a line from a quay to an anchor astern. Fortunately the parachute anchor and the Subrella were not needed. The Honda 9.9 performed well with the Ecoflow fitted. The Navico Tillerpilot was an almost constant support. The Furuno GPS and Navtex were irritating at times by being difficult to get used to the function buttons, but were also invaluable. The RCC Atlantic Spain & Portugal pilot book was well used by the time we reached Gibraltar.
The South Biscay pilot, bought to placate the wind gods, achieved its objective and remained unopened. We were not blown onto that coast. The Tetra Pak fuel cans and the Hella coolbox were disappointing. The twin genoas and ease of reefing were of huge benefit. An old rectangular cockpit tent provided necessary shade in harbour. The modifications in Bryher proved essential to our safety and comfort. Although small and light weight, Apataki proved to be an excellent sea boat, in the right hands, in the conditions encountered.
We look forward to some Mediterranean cruising in the years to come!
Author David Millner email author