Tuesday 14 October 2014

Westward Ho

The List is almost done, the engine has been serviced, the sails are back on, crew covers have been fitted over the gleaming white leather upholstery: finally its time to leave Palma. Looking back at the magnificent cathedral dominating the skyline I wonder when we will next return. All romantic thoughts are quickly dispelled by the large swell that hits us the moment we leave the shelter of the breakwater. Despite there being only 10 knots of wind, a short chop has developed in the bay of Palma. 

It is only 450 miles from Palma to Gibraltar but instead of three days it will take us five, burning 600 litres of diesel and averaging only 5 knots as we pitch like a hobbyhorse in the short wavelength. Every wave almost brings us to a halt, before the propeller bites again and we build some momentum - until the next wave. It’s a tiring motion and more importantly very slow, causing me to run the engine at higher revs to punch the waves and to recalculate my fuel consumption projections. I had intended taking on as little fuel as possible here in Spain because diesel is so much cheaper in tax-free Gibraltar. However at our higher rate of 10 litres per hour, and more hours than planned, we don’t even have enough to get to Cartagena on the mainland so I resign myself to a stop in Ibiza. Not such a terrible prospect under normal circumstances but it means further delay as we arrive after the pumps close. After a pleasant supper in Santa Eulalia on the south coast of Ibiza, we fill up the following morning and head off back into the swell. I have Rory with me as crew for the trip to Gibraltar and neither of us is looking forward to 4 days of motoring through the chop.

By staying close to the coast we manage to stay out of the worst of the waves and the adverse currents. The shoreline of the Costa del Sol is famous for its endless hotels but more evident from the sea are mile upon mile of plastic covered greenhouses where most of Europe’s winter vegetables are grown. Motoring slowly in the hot sunshine I also realise that despite the broken sleep of night watches I am feeling much more rested, having been sitting in the cockpit with my feet up for almost a week, reading my book, eating Fatty’s home-made frozen meals and listening to Desert Island Discs. Its salutary to hear that the hell raisers of our youth have become respectable elder statesmen. Remember Doyle from the seventies TV series The Professionals? He is Martin Shaw, Shakespearian actor and lover of classical music.  Terence Stamp? Now in his seventies and making a come back after training as a Buddhist monk.

 I am on watch as we arrive at Europa Point, the southern-most tip of Gibraltar. It is still dark and a dozen or so large tankers are moored, waiting to discharge their cargo.  Gibraltar is the largest bunkering port in the Mediterranean, with over 70,00 commercial vessels transiting the straits each year, and therefore of huge strategic value. It explains why the British doggedly hold on to this tiny outpost, despite protestations and continual harassment from Spain, railing against a very visible and patriotic British naval base in the middle of their sovereign territory.

The anchored tankers have so many deck lights that its hard to make out the navigation lights until suddenly I realise that one of these large lumbering giants is on the move.  Its AIS signature tells me that it is Hanjin America, 1,200 feet long, destination Suez.  It is making 10 knots as it ghosts along the coast, and with those dimensions its ability to manoeuvre is very limited. A crackle of static from the radio and a heavily accented voice breaks the silence in the cockpit “Hanjin America, this is Emerald Princess, over”. I move the cursor across the chart plotter and find the source of this announcement. It is a large cruise ship, 948 feet long, making 12 knots in the opposite direction. Looking towards our stern I see it glowing brightly in the dawn sky, sparkling with flashing lights as a thousand digital cameras attempt in vain to capture the famous Rock.  “Hanjin America, this is Emerald Princess, I require your immediate action, over”.  Silence from the tanker.  The speaker crackles again, this time the voice has an urgency about it, a hint of panic; “Hanjin America, this is Emerald Princess, I require that you take immediate action and turn to starboard, passing port to port”. I imagine the watch officer on the bridge of his huge vessel, seeing the tanker approaching on a near collision course with no one apparently on watch.   Then a new voice comes over the radio “Emerald Princess this is Tarifa Traffic, you are required to identify yourself immediately when entering the VTS”. The hapless watch leader on the cruise liner is now being berated by Tarifa Traffic, the marine equivalent of Air Traffic Control, for not reporting his entry to the VTS (Vessel Traffic Services).  “Tarifa Traffic this is Emerald Princess, we are a cruise liner with 3,048 passengers and 1,039 crew, last port Monte Carlo”. No wonder he was worried. The tanker silently alters course and the cruise liner follows us into Gibraltar, towering over our mast, elderly cruisers standing at their balconies wave to us, unaware of the drama that has taken place only moments earlier.

 Gibraltar has a bad reputation. Having been here before I know that it has its limitations but I am determined to give it the benefit of the doubt; until I begin to realise the problem. Like most places we have visited, the characteristics of a country are determined by its inhabitants, regardless of geography. The most beautiful Caribbean island can be rendered hostile by the attitude of its surly officials and in this way Gibraltar is no different. The issue here seems to be that there is no indigenous Gibraltarian. Other than the Naval base, it seems to be populated by itinerant ex-patriots who have ended up here by accident. No one chooses to come to Gibraltar, other than to see the apes and to sample the duty-free goods.  It boasts an economy based on on-line gambling, financial services and shipping. The people here are a strange collection of misfits, curiously patriotic but bound together only by their inability to fit in anywhere else; not the best basis for a community. However to the yachtsman, Gibraltar is the gateway to the Mediterranean, only 10 miles from Africa with cheap fuel and more prosaically, a great supermarket. Morrisons have the only large supermarket on the Rock and it must be a gold mine, serving the needs of Gibraltar’s 30,000inhabitants that are packed in to 2.3 square miles, of which a quarter must be woodland, perched on the precipitous slopes and populated only by the famous Barbary Apes.  As I wander around the supermarket I find it vaguely comforting to see the brands that I recognise from the UK, and I buy Marmite, Organic milk, Roses lime cordial and a copy of Yachting World.

My plan was to meet up with my crew in Gibraltar and head south for the Canary Islands, but the weather is against us so instead we are going to leave Juno here for a week or two until we get a more favourable weather window.  The seas down the African coast between Gibralter and the Canaries can be quite boisterous and I don’t want to start our journey into the Atlantic with an ordeal.   My loyal crew have all postponed their flights and barring a few immoveable commitments they are on hot stand-by while we watch the weather. Meanwhile I visit the chandlery in Ocean Village to collect my tax-free autopilot and take delivery of the new mainsail. Fatty is in the UK on a four day MCA first-aid course that she loves. I always thought that she would make a good doctor, bossing her patients with a mix of tyranny and charm.

The reason I remain in Gibraltar is because we have a leak.  A small amount of sea water is entering the deck through the chain plate fittings and has worked its way into the saloon joinery, leaving a trail of unsightly black fungus on the oak veneer. My diagnosis is that as the rig has been pumping back and forth in the waves, it has opened up a small crack in the sealant on the deck around the base of the chain plate and a tiny fraction of the gallons of sea water coursing over the decks has worked its way in, running down the chain plate into a locker. Chain plates are a critical part of the structure of a yacht and the mast in particular. The mast is connected fore and aft to a forestay and a backstay respectively, while the shrouds provide the lateral support. These are wire rigging cables that connect the mast through the side decks to the chain plates; heavy steel sections that are bolted into fibre glass stringers that span the full width of the hull, via the keel bolts, connecting to another chain plate on the opposing deck, creating an extended A frame. There are two potential cures for the leak: the easy one is to simply replace the sealant on the deck around the chain plate; the more significant fix is to re-bed the entire deck fitting but this would involve supporting the mast and disconnecting the chain plate - no easy operation.  On Oyster’s advice I opt for the simple fix that the boatyard will carry out as soon as the deck dries out.

I am sitting in the Waterfront bar at Queensway Quay marina having grown a beard and drinking pints of London Pride in the rain.  Feels just like the Solent.  It’s definitely time to leave Gibraltar and head back to the UK for my last two board meetings before we leave to cross the Atlantic.

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