Moroccan fishing boat hidden in the swell

There are some things in life that make sailors long for a tree to sit under; losing your rudder on an ocean passage is one of them and is top of the list of things you hope never to experience second only perhaps to actually sinking. From Essaouira, Morocco to Isla Graciosa off the  northern tip of Lanzarote is around 250 nautical miles or about 36 hours at sea, small beer in terms of some passages we’ve made and Temptress set off eager to be somewhere new. The forecast was for a north easterly F4 becoming F5 later and perhaps becoming more easterly as we approached the Canaries. Our course was basically just west of south west and we chose to steer a little higher as we expected a 0.5 to 1 knot current which would push the boat south. The sun was shining, the weather pleasantly warm but not hot in the breeze. Cheerfully we argued about our top three anchorages before agreeing that Tobermoray, Loch Moidart and Warbarrow Bay qualified whilst Newton Creek, Lulworth Cove, Loch Dram na Buie were runners up.

Down here at 30 odd degrees above the Equator it gets dark around 6pm so we ate supper early on our first night at sea, Monday 4 November and Kevin took the first off watch. Temptress was romping along comfortably at seven or eight knots with the second reef in the main and a small amount of jib unfurled. The north easterly had kicked up a wave train at slight odds to the huge ocean swell which sporadically caused a mountain of water to break with a roar and our wake added to the melee with pyramidal piles of water that splashed up the starboard quarter sprinkling the watch keeper with cold salty water. Oiles, snug mid-layers and a warm hat were required.

There was a thump felt rather than heard in the cockpit but loud down below, quickly followed by a second one then George beeped frantically complaining he was off course.  I rushed to help him out but came to a stop short of the control panel down by the wheel as my harness line wasn’t quite long enough. Unclipping quickly I grabbed the wheel and pushed the standby button. Meanwhile Kevin pulled on his layers and lifejacket and appeared on deck. Having got round aft of the wheel it quickly dawned on me that the steering was oddly stiff then as a wave lifted us the wheel span far too easily under my grip. Temptress was tossed round in a gybe by the wave, we both yelled the “rudder has gone” as the boom swung across violently. Temptress carried on round into a tack and another gybe and probably another tack but by then we were trying to pull in the mainsheet and get things back under control. With the jib backed and the main pinned in we hove to, safe but shocked.

A quick assessment of the damage on deck showed that the traveller blocks had broken loose on the port side so we pulled the car up to starboard and locked it there. The portside traveller control line had ripped out it’s sprayhood eyelet  across as far as the companionway granny bar, by quickly shoved the cockpit cushions up against the hole any further ripping of the flapping material was prevented. Later we tried to duct tape it but the material was all too damp. And much later when it was light I scavenged a shackle from our davit hoist and repaired the traveller as faras we were able, daylight also showed that the lower pulley wheels on the blocks at either end had gone broken apart by the force of one or other gybe so it was no longer easy to adjust. We put in the third reef to slow us down.

What was left

Then clipping on around the backstay, the skipper took a torch and ventured down Temptress’ stepped transom. Lying on the bottom step and hanging over the edge he reported that the rudder had indeed gone but that the stern post and the metal work that had supported the GRP was still in place. One relief as without the stern post we’d have a large hole several inches in diameter in our stern and sinking would be a very real threat. In fact the lower rudder bearing with nothing now to hold it in place had dropped down onto the top of the metal work too but we only realised this later.

What were our options? Sixty miles out from our last port which now lay impossibly upwind, the huge lee shore of Africa to the south of us, the Canaries south west of our position and North America some thousands of miles to the west. We tacked over and hove to again so Temptress now pointed north-west, that way we’d drift away from the coast whilst we considered our options. Even like this we were making 4 knots, in the coming days we worked out how to get this down to under one knot. We took turns to doze. With the AIS keeping watch for any shipping coming over the horizon we felt fairly safe. At least the boat was floating. The initial adrenalin rush was wearing off we both felt sick with crampy stomachs from the shock. Wait ‘til dawn and then make a decision.

Rudderless sailing in a BIG dinghy!

Before dawn we’d figured out how to guide our drifting a bit by adjusting the sails. Unlike a dinghy though moving our weight around wasn’t going to make much difference to our direction but similar principles applied and Temptress as always was well behaved responding to our alterations, waves permitting. And soon too Kevin realised that the stump of the rudder gave us some additional control when the odd wave tried to toss us round, but it was tiring on the arms, often full lock to full lock to bring the bow round or trying to hold the rudder in line whilst it was battered by a breaker.  The good news was and boy we needed some that we could sail this way at up to 5 knots with some directional control. During Tuesday I tried steering too but found that half an hour was all I could manage, Kevin steered for hours his hands sore from running the wheel through them. Adjusting sails was a constant task too so no respite for the crew not steering.

Torn sprayhood and damaged traveller

At least the skipper could smile!

Our knight in shining armour…

When the wind abated a bit and the waves went down we tried George to give Kevin a break but though he struggled bravely his computer brain wasn’t quick enough to counteract the breakers so after a couple of involuntary tacks or gybes it was back to the skipper. When Kevin needed a rest we simply hove to and locked off the wheel.

We found it hard to eat our bodies still reeling from shock were simply not hungry, our plan for a risotto from the previous days leftover were abandoned. I hated being down below in the spinning world it had become for any longer than I had to unless lying down. Quick notes in the log or checks on the AIS were all I could manage. We survived on cuppa soups, cups of hot chocolate or tea, apples and bananas with the occasional chocolate hobnob.

Sometime on Tuesday morning we started hearing Las Palmas Traffic Control but couldn’t raise them ourselves. We did though manage to raise SY Gemini our US flagged neighbour from Rabat who had left there after us heading for the Canaries. To hear Susan’s American accent responding to our call was a comfort and she promised to try Las Palmas on our behalf as they were closer than us. Meanwhile we also put in a call on the satphone to MRCC Falmouth to alert them of our situation and outline our plan to continue sailing as best we could towards the Canaries then call for a tow into Lanzarote when closing the land. Our course was at best a yawing one some twenty or thirty degrees either side of our heading and we didn’t think we’d be safe close to any coast. They provided us with Las Palmas MRCC’s phone number and assured us that they would notify them for us. They also asked us to report in to Falmouth every three hours or so and our short conversations with their calm English voices were also quite a comfort during the ordeal.

Frustrated with our progress which the PC screen showed as a wavering scrawl north west then west and then a bit more south west as we learnt to control the boat, late on Tuesday evening Kevin tried the engine. It was disappointing to discover that although the additional water flow over the holey steel plate gave better control the increased speed dragged down the stern which in turn forced water up through the stern tube into the boat. We did not want to bring about Temptress’ sinking so the engine stayed off.  We did though do some fuel calculations and if the wind should die would be able to motor slowly on our reserves for some twenty hours which might be useful later.

Next obstacle was the Concepcion Bank, a large area of rock that rises from the seabed to within 20m of the surface in one area lay between us and our goal. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture what would happen to the already high waves and swell when the Atlantic is forced to go from almost 2000m deep to 200 to 700m in a short distance. We definitely did not want to be anywhere to the north of that. Temptress was gybed so we were now heading almost due south to sail around thirty miles off its eastern edge, dispiritedly not making much progress towards the Canaries but at least safe from shipping which was passing either to the north of the bank or to the south. And the bank gradually started to give us some shelter from the swell which improved our comfort a bit.

Not the best course we’ve ever steered!

Our second night at sea was though the most miserable I think either of us have ever spent anywhere; worse than dismasting Clarionet off Ireland, worse than having to abandon Temptress during the 2002 hurricane in Barbate Marina. It was dark and moonless too. We weren’t cold or wet but with the crazy motion and tiredness I wanted nothing more than to be on land and never go to sea again, we both expressed a longing for a tree to sit under. Around 2am on Wednesday, both exhausted from sail trimming and hand steering we decided that we’d hove too again so Kevin could get some sleep, both staying in full oilies and lIfejackets, clipped on in the cockpit in case of any problems. The skipper snored and somehow kept his perch laying on the leeward cockpit seat whilst I sat opposite legs braced to keep me in place and dozed between occasional checks around the horizon and down below on the AIS.

After an hour and a half’s power nap we both felt improved. Temptress had covered 200 nautical miles since leaving Morocco, 140 of them without a rudder. Our overnight wandering track had taken us south to the rhumb line between Essaouira and the south coast of Lanzarote where the various safe ports were but back into the paths of shipping so a full watch was needed. Now clear south of the monster bank, the wind was down to F3 and the seas calmer, perhaps it was time to think about getting a tow. I tried Las Palmas Traffic on the VHF, we could hear only a crackly response and I guessed they heard not much more from me. Then we were hailed by Maersk Norfolk a container ship some five or six miles away steaming north to Europe, Las Palmas MRCC were trying to contact us and could he relay? My hero! The radio operator was cool, calm and collected as he passed information back and forth – name of vessel, how many people on board, what state were we in, what assistance did we need. Las Palmas promised to contact us again when they had an ETA for the rescue boat. Maersk Norfolk then wished us well and continued on their way, we will be forever grateful for their help.

Some two hours later the radio crackled into life “Temptress of Down, Temptress of Down this is MV Callisto” They had been asked by MRCC Las Palmas to relay the ETA for the rescue boat to us – four hours so about eleven in the morning then. In fact the large orange ship (sound familiar, it was a newer version of the one we’d rafted alongside in Essaouira) appeared over the horizon well within four hours and had been on a collision course with us for at least two of those setting off our AIS alarm each time the CPA was recalculated (ie with our every yaw sideways) until driven crazy by it we turned the sound off! At 09:10 Guardamar Talia called us on the VHF to say they were 52 minutes away. First impressions can be misleading “we will do this from the manual” was not exactly inspiring as we envisioned them actually reading through the preparatory work step by step. But soon we realised these were professionals who knew exactly what they were doing and were doing it by the book. Nothing happened until they were certain we knew what was happening.

First we had to take down our sails then we were instructed to check for any lines over the side as they did not wish to risk them wrapping themselves round their brand new boat’s propellers. Then 31 m of orange ship manoeuvred itself so that its 8m wide stern was within a few metres of our port beam and a heaving line thrown expertly across our bow. Kevin caught it and heaved. The bridle came over to us – a loop in the end of pair of wire hawsers attached to a heavy stretchy rope. He was instructed to slip them over Temptress’ forward cleats and use the small black lines attached to the loops to lock them down to they wouldn’t jerk off in the ensuing tow. After that the mother ship slowly moved off the crew un-reeling the line from a huge drum on their aft deck. All communication was clear and in good English and they gave us plenty of time to acknowledge each instruction was understood.

The Guardamar Talia about a hundred metres ahead of us slowly increased speed and suddenly Temptress was being towed along like a pendulum swerving from side to side. The problem was that as we swooped from left to right and back again Temptress was reaching eight knots and the electric bilge pump began hammering away urgently. We were taking on serious amounts of water though the damaged stern tube. A heart in mouth moment once again. A quick call on the radio had them slow down before we sank. Kevin dashed down below and crawled into the services area under the stern whilst I sat and operated the cockpit bilge pump which moves massive amounts of water rapidly. With a couple of small towels grabbed from the linen locker stuffed into the top of the badly cracked stern tube the worst of the ingress was stemmed. Whilst our rescuers chugged along at their minimum speed of 3.75 knots Kevin worked to sort out the bilge pump. He’d cleaned the filter only a short while before the tow started as a precaution but it was not pumping much away. He dismantled my wardrobe again to get at the pump and poked into the outer part of the filter with a skewer, then tweezers before finally removing the incoming bilge pipe entirely and finding it chocked full of rubbish some of which must have been washed down from nooks and crannies of the boat never reached before – plastic tape, a whole teak plug, oddments of epoxy all gummed up with hair and fluff. After undergoing surgery the pump worked more efficiently than it had in ages though it continued to go off during the rest of our trip as water found its way forward to the sump at the bottom of the mast.

Suddenly our lives became very quiet. We were no longer in charge. The sea was flatter, Temptress swung madly off one wave only to be brought up short by the bridle before charging off in the opposite direction so it was all a bit odd and jerky but we didn’t have to steer, adjust sails or anything. We tidied up down below, turned our left over veggie curry into a spicy risotto for lunch, dozed in the cockpit or slept on the saloon berth. Land Ho! After fifty one hours at sea we spotted the volcanic outline of Lanzarote it was almost 2pm on our third day at sea.

Coming alongside the Guardamar Talia

Eventually we thought to ask our rescuers where they were taking us. It turned out the new marina in Arrecife was the intended destination. I explained to our contact on the rescue ship, later we discovered his name was Paolo, that we would need a lift out and did they have a hoist large enough? He went off to find out via Las Palmas MRCC, what was available. The hoist there it turned out was as yet uncommissioned, Puerto Calero was the alternative but two hours further on so our course was altered, ETA around 11pm may be a little longer. The tow tried going a knot or so faster but rapidly realised that this was a mistake as the bilge pump sprang into life again so settled back at just over 4 knots. Patience was what it was going to take. Temptress crew discussed what lights were needed for a tow – we could remember what lights the towing vessel needed but what about us? We had to look it up and the answer was simple and logical, our standard lower navigation lights without the steaming light.

Supper was a boat stew of tinned chicken in white sauce, tinned potatoes and frozen peas – delicious, our appetites had returned with a vengeance after near starvation for twenty four hours or more. As we approached Paolo issued more instructions explaining how they needed to move us alongside for the final bit into the marina. We put out our fenders on the starboard side as requested, then they gradually shortened the tow line keeping the bridle in place as a precaution and only finally removing it when we were all tied up in port. Then carefully the huge steel Guardamar Talia came alongside our relatively tiny fragile plastic home and with big boat’s huge fenders, our relatively minute ones and her mucky black rubber rubbing strake between the two boats Temptress was safely towed the last few metres round into the marina before being manhandled into a space on the pontoon behind her rescuer.

We’d been instructed to bring the ships papers with us and come on board as soon as everything was tied up safely. We guessed our rescuers would want to be off home to Tenerife as quickly as possible. It was strange to finally come face to face with the people you’d spent the whole of the last fourteen hours with. The orange overcalled crew took our thanks with smiles and expressions of relief that we were safely delivered to port. We all shook hands and then cups of strong coffee in hand sat down with the Captain to do the paperwork. A huge bill will be issued, he warned us, once he was back in port and could calculate the fuel but for now his estimate would be five thousand euros (yes you read that right) but don’t worry said his translator Paolo, your insurance should cover costs like that. He was busy reading the Spanish version of our policy. In one of those odd coincidences as we chatted about where we’d come from we discovered that Paolo and his family had holidayed in Inverness around the same time as we were entering the Caledonian Canal there. Wow that seemed like a life time ago to us now.

Towel stuffed cracked stern tube

Paperwork over it was time to say goodbye and thank the crew once more, they couldn’t have been more professional, helpful, kind and careful. The Guardamar Talia left quickly and the marina night staff took over providing two more forms to be completed before we could retire to our bunk. It was gone one by the time we were sorted and finally in bed, glad that this particular adventure was over. Finally we could put away our phucket-bucket list for the foreseeable future, this particularly stressful entry having topped anything either of us had ever experienced before and not one we wish to repeat. Ever.